Richard Pitino Wants Long Stay at U
There’s been talk for awhile that Richard Pitino will pursue the right opportunity to move on from his position as head basketball coach for the men’s program at the University of Minnesota. It’s been gossiped that he doesn’t like this area and welcomes the thought of moving out East to live and coach.
Pitino’s hometown is Boston. He attended high school at St. Sebastian’s in Needham, Mass. After college at Providence he had assistant coaching experiences at Northeastern, Duquesne, Louisville and Florida before becoming, at 29 years old, head coach for Florida Atlantic. Family and friends in the East live a long way from Minneapolis.
This fall Pitino begins his sixth season at Minnesota with a contract that runs through 2022. What does he say about rumors he wants to move on if given the opportunity to head East?
“I’ve signed two extensions since I have been here. I’d sign another one right now if (athletic director) Mark Coyle would offer it to me,” Pitino told Sports Headliners during a one-on-one interview this week. “I am from back East but I consider Minnesota home. I’ve had two children born here. I am ingrained into the community. My wife (Jill) and I love it here. We’ve met some great friends.”
To Pitino’s pleasure, he has witnessed major changes in the athletic department since he was hired as Minnesota’s head coach in 2013. The new $160 million Athlete’s Village, with all its amenities including for basketball, is a dramatic difference maker for impressing recruits and serving his players. Upgrades have been made to historic Williams Arena and Pitino has experienced how that building can give his team a special home court advantage in big games.
After working for two previous athletic directors, he’s seen stability come to that position with the hiring of Coyle who has been on the job since 2016. Pitino knows he benefits, too, from having the only Division I basketball program in Minnesota, and that the state is turning out high school recruits coveted across the country.
For those reasons and others Pitino said his job “checks all the boxes” for a place he wants to be. That checklist includes strong academics at the U and Pitino made it clear during the interview how he values the kind of student-athlete experience the coach said he wants for his players at Minnesota.
Add up all the positives and Pitino describes himself as “fortunate” to have the Gopher job. “I am here forever long as they’ll have me,” he said.
In the years ahead Pitino expects his teams to compete for Big Ten championships. “Yeah, now that we’ve got all the pieces (resources),” he said. “Two years ago we finished fourth (in the standings). I thought last year, if we had stayed healthy, we could have won it. So I think we’ll bounce back this year, have a really good team.
“The biggest thing is …it’s a fine line between the top of this league and the middle and the bottom. It can be a lucky free throw here, a bounce there, a lucky call by the ref.
“I’ve been here five years. I really thought for four years we had as good of a chance to be at the top of it as any. Certainly my third year we were really rebuilding, but we’ve been close (other seasons) and I think we’ll be back there this year.”
The Gophers started last season at 13-3 and were nationally ranked. By January, though, injuries to key players and the suspension of center Reggie Lynch had the Gophers in big trouble and headed toward a final Big Ten record of 4-14.
“Last year was hard because we felt that could be a special team,” Pitino said. “The rug was pulled out from underneath us with a lot of things that we couldn’t control. The biggest thing you learn is just keeping coaching those guys. Every day there is something you can do to make them better. Make them stronger.”
The Gophers play their first and only exhibition game November 1 when Minnesota Duluth comes to Williams Arena. After that there will be challenging nonconference games including a home test against Utah November 12. There are two Big Ten regular season games in December and then after January 1 it’s all conference play until hopefully qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in March.
Pitino has talent and experience to work with including four players returning who have been starters in the past, plus promising newcomers. The roster includes senior forward Jordan Murphy who was named by a media panel yesterday to the All-Big Ten preseason team. Pitino likes the potential of his team and knows a successful season can lessen pressure on him and the program. After five seasons the results have been very mixed.
The Gophers won 25 games in Pitino’s first season of 2012-13. The success included winning the NIT title. The 2017 team had a surprising 11-7 regular season Big Ten record and finished fourth in the conference, the best the Gophers had done since 2005. As a result, Pitino was voted Big Ten Coach of the Year by media and coaches. Program lows during the Pitino era include off-the-court problems with players and a 2-16 Big Ten record in 2016 (8-23 overall) that made the 2017 season such a surprise to almost everyone.
Pitino believes he is a better coach than when he arrived here as a 30 year old. “I would think that every year I get a little bit better,” he said. “I am more…confident every year that goes into it. I believe we can compete with everybody in this league. We got some hall of fame coaches…Tom Izzo (Michigan State), John Beilein (Michigan), and then you’ve got some younger guys who are really good as well.
“So I humbly say that I am confident as I’ve ever been going against those guys. (With) the players that we have right now, we’ve got some young guys that are really good. We’ve got some veterans who are ready to go, so I feel good about it.”
What does Pitino consider his greatest strength as a coach? “An understanding of young athletes in today’s world,” he answered. “I am 36 years old. I get what they’re dealing with.
“I think that I have a really good connection with our guys. I think they like playing for me, playing for what we’re trying to do. I think if you look at three years ago (the 2015-16 season), we won eight games and we had some embarrassing things happen at the end of the season and nobody transferred.
“That says a lot about our program—and that’s probably, as sad as it sounds, one of the more proud moments for me was that…they believed in me, their families believed in what we were doing, that we’re going to hold them accountable, make them better, tell them the truth.
“There’s not a lot of B.S. to me. I am going to tell you exactly where I think you stand, where we can get better together. I am probably going to say that’s my greatest strength.”