There was no way the 1987 Providence College Friars men’s basketball team should have made it to the NCAA Final Four. Expectations for the team were high, but not this high. Point guard Billy Donovan, the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, was running the show. A young Rick Pitino was the head coach coming in the midst of a personal tragedy that helped bring his team together.
Rick Pitino’s coaching career
Rick Pitino got his first head coaching job at Boston University in 1978. During his run with the Terriers, he took the program to its first NCAA tourney appearance in more than 20 years. After leaving BU, he went on to become an assistant coach with the New York Knicks before taking the head coaching job at Providence College in 1985.
Pitino left Providence after the magical 1987 season to become the head coach of the Knicks. He spent just two seasons with the Knicks but led them to their first division title in 20 years. The well-traveled Pitino made his way back to college in 1989 as the head coach of Kentucky where he won a national title in 1996. He headed back to the NBA as head coach of the Boston Celtics from 1997-2001 before making another college stop at Louisville.
Pitino spent the next 16 years at Louisville. In 2013, Pitino won another national title, but the team later was involved in an NCAA investigation regarding an escort sex scandal involving recruits. The NCAA suspended Pitino for five games for failing to monitor his team and then in 2018, the NCAA forced Louisville to vacate its 2013 title. Pitino was then involved in a pay-for-play scandal that ultimately had him fired. He is now the coach at Iona.
Pitino’s time at Providence College
Rick Pitino was the head coach of the Providence Friars for just two seasons. He didn’t inherit a ton of talent, but he turned the Friars into an unexpected Final Four team in his second year. He wasn’t overly impressed with his roster, which included 10 guys “who were not any good,” Pitino said, according to Slamonline.com.
The roster included an overweight Billy Donovan, a transfer from Indiana named Delray Brooks, and guys named Dave Kipfer, Jacek Duda, Steve Wright, Darryl Wright, Pop Lewis, along with freshmen Marty Conlon and Carlton Screen. Donovan was 5-foot-11 and 191 pounds and Pitino told him he needed to shed 30 pounds. He wanted out of Providence, but the issue was that Northeastern and Fairfield, his two top choices, didn’t need him. He stuck it out. “(Pitino) told me, ‘If you do everything I ask, you will have the greatest year of your life,’” Donovan said.
Pitino’s plan for those Friars was run, run, and run and chuck up a bunch of 3-pointers. “We were a whole bunch of guys who hadn’t played much before Rick got there, and we were just thrown into the river,” said Jacek Duda, a center on the team. “Rick made everybody believe in themselves.” Brooks was highly regarded coming out of high school, but couldn’t handle playing for Bobby Knight at Indiana. “When you play for Bob Knight, you can either be broken down or fall in line,” Pitino said. “He came to me a beaten guy, and I had to get his confidence going. It worked out great.”
The death of Pitino’s young son and the Friars’ improbable run
Providence College had just captured the Big East Tournament and was ready to accept the school’s first NCAA tourney bid in nine years, but the celebration was short-lived. On the bus ride home, Rick Pinto found out his six-month-old son Daniel died of cardiac arrest. Daniel had been born prematurely and had battled pneumonia and other infections, according to The Orlando Sentinel. “Even after Coach and his wife got off the bus, we still didn’t know for sure, but I think everyone suspected,” forward David Kipfer said. “There were lumps in everyone’s throat.”
Four days after Pitino buried his son, the Friars were playing Round 1 of the NCAA tourney where they dismantled the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The sixth-seeded Friars then eked out an overtime win over Austin Peay before crushing No. 9 Alabama 103-82. Next up was Big East rival and No. 1 seed Georgetown in an Elite Eight meeting where the Friars cruised 88-73, setting up an unexpected Final Four matchup with Syracuse. Their run ended with a 77-63 loss to the Orangemen, but all that time together helped ease the pain for Pitino and his players.
“I told the players after the tragedy that there was nothing they could do for our grief other than their prayers. They had to keep working,” Pitino said. “Our personal grief will always be with us. I just told them to keep this going as long as they could. It helped occupy our time. The tears will come later.”
“When you love someone as much as we love Coach, and you see what he’s gone through, you just want to play your guts out for him,” Kipfer said. “I hope that by keeping him in this tournament this long, maybe we’ve somehow eased his grief.”