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Dec. 16—This isn't about the Pitinos.
Sure, Sunday's Iona vs. UNM men's basketball game in the Pit is trending toward around 14,000 fans and is being promoted as the father/son showdown. And, yes, it's garnering national attention because Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino is visiting Albuquerque where his son, Richard Pitino, has the Lobos off to a perfect 10-0 start just five weeks into the second season of a major rebuild of the once-proud program.
Sunday's 4:30 p.m. game, which could have the largest crowd of the season at the Pit, really has nothing to do with a Pitino beating a Pitino.
At least not if you only ask the Pitinos.
"He knows he's not coaching against me," Rick Pitino said on Tuesday night after his Gaels improved to 7-2 with a win over Princeton. "He's coaching against Iona."
Thursday, in a sentiment he's echoed at least a dozen time in the past couple weeks in press conferences, radio interviews and just in conversation, Richard Pitino said wanted to play the game to give fans a nonconference opponent to get excited about and for his team to have an opportunity at a quality win, but that it has very little personal motivation because of the coaching matchup.
"I've said before, and I know it's boring, but I don't care about beating my dad. I really don't," Richard Pitino said Thursday. "I've told all my players this: It's never going to be about me. We've put ourselves in a position after 10 games, to maybe do something special. So I'm not going to make it about me versus my dad."
But then there's those who know both men and who believe the competitive juices that fill their DNA will make it hard for them to simply accept any outcome on Sunday with a smile.
Talking Grammer Podcast —Ep 56: Rick Pitino vs Richard Pitino (TG 12.16.22)
"Both of them are fierce competitors and both want to succeed and want to win," college basketball analyst Dick Vitale told the Journal this week in a podcast interview available now.
"Obviously it's a situation where players have to perform and perform to a high level to make it happen, but they want to win. There's no question about it. I know Rick really well. I can tell you this. He hates to lose in checkers or anything. I mean, the guy's a born competitor, and I'm sure that's rubbed off on his son."
Vitale added an on-brand prediction for the game: "It's going to be awesome, baby, with a capital A!"
Former New Mexico assistant Dan McHale, who cut his college basketball teeth on Rick Pitino's staff at Louisville in 2002 and was a two-year assistant to Richard Pitino at Minnesota, said he has no doubt the desire to win is high for both, even if Richard Pitino has a good sense about the framing of what's most important.
"Trust me, (Richard) wants to win this game, but he's got great perspective," McHale said. "Same thing Rick wants, to win this game, but he's got better perspective than all of us.
"I just think it's a great opportunity for the two of them to compete with 14,000 people in an incredible environment."
McHale, now working out of coaching in New York, said he plans to watch Sunday's game, but is happy he won't again have to endure the same postgame experience he had the last time Papa Pitino and Son Pitino coached against each other.
Sunday's game in Albuquerque, in fact, will be the third such showdown.
Richard Pitino was 30 in his first head coaching job at Florida International when his father's eventual national champion Louisville Cardinals beat the Panthers 79-55. The younger Pitino now describes that game as a 'collect the game check and move on' sort of affair.
But two years later, then coaching the Big Ten's Minnesota Golden Gophers, another Pitino vs. Pitino showdown was scheduled and expected to be more of a fair fight. The two played in the third annual Armed Forces Classic in a nationally televised, open-air game at the U.S. Air Station in Borinquen, Puerto Rico.
The Cardinals, who went on to a 27-win season that finished in an Elite Eight loss, beat the Gophers 81-68.
So friendly ahead of the game were both teams that they took the same flight to and from the game site, stayed in the same hotel and had pregame meals together.
"Fun trip — fun going down," McHale said. "Not so much fun flying home."
On that flight back, McHale recalled in a podcast interview with the Journal, he was sitting with his family on the plane and opened up his laptop to start watching the game film with a notepad and pen handy.
"Next thing I hear is Coach Pitino senior's voice snapped around, 'Dan McHale, come up here,'" he recalls.
McHale, who had primary scouting duty on that game for Minnesota, went to the front of the plane to watch the game film with the Pitinos.
"Richard moves over one seat and I sit right in the middle and for the next two hours have to kind of get it from both coaches of how we defended this pick and roll, why we defended this underneath out of bounds the way we did — what were we thinking there?" McHale recalls, more fondly today than at the time.
"I'm very, very thankful to be in that opportunity to sit between two great coaches, but at that time it wasn't the most enjoyable flight coming home. .... I do remember very clearly that Mrs. Pitino — Joanne — finally tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Come on, Dan. Come on back here. Sit back here (with your family). I was thankful for Mrs. P for doing that."
MORE DICKIE V: Vitale has fond memories of the Pit, where he's called multiple games.
"I was there when Jimmy V (Jim Valvano, the former N.C. State coach) won the national championship (in 1983) and that was very special," Vitale said. "I remember being at the press conference sitting next to his father. His father was so proud. (Jim Valvano) said he'd name his kid Al B. Querque.
"So as I was there, but I haven't been there in a long, long time because they haven't had a team that was the kind of special team that would be on national TV."
TICKET SALES: Ticket sales for Sunday's game hit 12,000 on Thursday evening, according to Deputy Athletic Director David Williams.
UNM, again hoping to have fans get in the arena through new security measures quicker than last weekend's game against UT-San Antonio, is giving away cherry "Spirit Shakers" to the first 3,000 fans who get there early.
VIDEO: Here's video from Thursday's Richard Pitino news conference with Albuquerque media: