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Why Pitino Return May Have Happened

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March 18, 2020

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Did circumstances caused by the coronavirus prompt Golden Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle to announce last week that basketball coach Richard Pitino will return for another season?

A sports executive, asking for anonymity, told Sports Headliners a couple of weeks ago he heard Coyle had decided to fire Pitino, who was completing his seventh season leading the Gophers. Another source, with close ties to the University of Minnesota, said rumors this winter were Coyle had reached out to potential replacements.

As of last week, developments from the coronavirus had the University anticipating $50 million or more in new expenses. It could be that Coyle, in consultation with school president Joan Gabel, decided against giving Pitino the $2 million buyout his contract demands.

Critics would have pounced hard on University leaders for spending $2 million during such difficult times at the U and throughout the state of Minnesota. Fault-finders wouldn’t care the $2 million probably would have come from the largely self-supporting athletic department, and not from tax dollars out of the University’s general fund.

Gabel and Coyle may well have sized up the situation and seen that the practicality and the perception of changing basketball coaches just now was not the way to go. “Richard was (probably) spared by the pandemic,” said the source with close ties to the U.

Was it the right decision? For years there has been a chorus of Pitino critics, speaking with conviction that the program has underperformed. This winter the noise level jumped with loud complaining and second-guessing from the fan-base. There were blown leads in games and close defeats, including to border rivals Iowa and Wisconsin.  The emotions of this winter became combined with too many past seasons of frustrations that even involved misbehavior by players.

Wisconsin had five Minnesotans on its roster this year and some played key roles in helping the Badgers tie for the 2020 Big Ten championship. Next season the Badgers add two promising Minnesota prep players in Ben Carlson and Steven Crowl. The roster in Madison is expected to have seven Minnesotans for 2020-2021.

For 20 consecutive Big Ten seasons the Badgers have produced better records than the Gophers! And often Minnesotans were major contributors. Part of that Wisconsin success story the last 20 years includes five Big Ten regular season titles and two Final Four appearances. Impressive results for the Badgers who represent a state and school that is demographically, culturally and geographically similar to Minnesota.

Critics have been outspoken for a long time about the Gophers not recruiting more quality Minnesota prep players. A former Big Ten coach told Sports Headliners there were more than a dozen Minnesotans playing for other NCAA basketball teams this winter that could have helped the Gophers. Pitino’s two most recent recruiting classes have no Minnesotans—and he and his staff have come up empty on three of the last four classes.

This year’s Gopher team had five Minnesotans on the roster, with two of them starters. Sophomore center Daniel Oturu was named an All-American and is likely to depart for the NBA in the spring. Sophomore guard Gabe Kalscheur was also a starter and the team’s most active three-point shooter. Forwards Michael Hurt and Jarvis Omersa played limited minutes off the bench, and guard Brady Rudrud hardly at all.

Fans have an expectation that the high caliber and large number of talented prep players in the state will translate into success for the Gophers. Minnesota has become a hotbed of talent, and a regular recruiting stop for college coaches from other places including prominent names like Tom Izzo of Michigan State, Bill Self from Kansas and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke.

Pitino’s seven-year Big Ten record is 48 wins, 72 losses. Only once, in 2016-2017, have his teams won more conference regular season games than they have lost. That 11-7 record was a pleasant surprise and resulted in Pitino being selected the league’s Coach of the Year.

The 2016-2017 team made the NCAA Tournament where the Gophers lost their opening game. Pitino’s team last year also made the tournament and had an impressive upset win over Louisville before losing to Michigan State. In the coach’s first season, 2013-2014, Minnesota won the National Invitational Tournament.

Qualifying for the 68-field NCAA Tournament has become a popular measure of success in the college basketball world, but it shouldn’t be seen by fans or administrators as meaningful as being a conference title contender most seasons. In a statement last week Coyle expressed his expectations for Pitino to compete for championships. (While more detail was sought, Coyle declined to be interviewed for this column.)

Next fall and winter the pressure on the coach and Coyle could increase even more. If Oturu departs, it’s difficult to speculate how the returning players and incoming freshmen (two four-star recruits from out of state) will produce and with what results.

Those results weren’t so good this year with the Gophers finishing in 12th place in the 14-team Big Ten. Minnesota’s record was 8-12 in the conference and 15-16 overall. Home attendance had an announced average for 16 games of 10,232. That is the lowest since the program had an average of 8,395 during the 1970-1971 season. (Announced attendance means tickets distributed.)

The Gophers had one sellout all season when 14,625 was announced for the February 16 Iowa game. Fan apathy has been a reality for years and this offseason indifference is likely to grow. Certainly Coyle sees this and may well have considered how a change in leadership could have jump-started expectations and revenues including season tickets and donations. The right coach could make up the $2 million buyout in short order.

Coyle is a savvy administrator and has impressed with his coaching selections since becoming athletic director in 2016. His hires include football coach P.J. Fleck who in year three at Minnesota led the Gophers to a final A.P. ranking of No. 10 in the nation. That was the highest ranking for the program at the end of a season since 1962. For decades Gopher football mostly struggled against Big Ten opponents, but last year Minnesota had a 7-2 record. The seven wins tied a school record. Fleck’s teams are 15-4 in their last 19 games.

If the football program—requiring large numbers of players—can become a quick success story at Minnesota, then surely basketball can rebound, too. The rise of football should mute the apologists who say Gophers basketball can’t do much better than land in the lower portion of the Big Ten standings.

Pitino was hired in 2013 by infamous U athletic director Norwood Teague who had been unable to convince other candidates to accept the job. Pitino, then 30 years old, had one season of head coaching experience at Florida International where his record was 18-14. The job at Minnesota has been rewarding financially with a current salary base of about $2 million and millions more earned over seven years including through bonuses. Not so rewarded are the Gopher loyalists who have invested their money, time and emotions in the program with minimal return for years.

Teague showed patience with Pitino, and so, too, has Coyle who is on record as personally liking the coach. I like Richard, too, but coaches are hired to win and there has been too little of that for most of the last seven seasons.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

(3) Readers Comments

  1. avatar
    Ken Lien
    March 18, 2020 at 10:59 am

    Great column Mr. Shama......one of your best ever! While Coyle has formulated his reasoning to keep Pitino, I for one, am extremely disappointed (angered) with his decision. I’ve been a Gopher basketball fan for decades, but I can no longer say that. In fact after the Iowa game I made the decision to no longer watch a Pitino coached team. Why don’t I think Pitino’s a worthy coach? #1 he’s a poor recruiter and, #2 he’s a poor game coach. Hell, I can envision the Big Ten coaches voting him as COY every year. Why? Because they like having him around as it assures them another win or two each year! Next year Wisconsin will have 7 (SEVEN!) Minnesota prep players on their roster, plus there are numerous numbers of great Minnesota kids domiciled around the country. I’m thoroughly disgusted!

  2. avatar
    Gary Hanson
    March 18, 2020 at 11:18 am

    Spot on column today, David. I'm as disgusted as Mr. Lien (see above) - maybe more so since I've followed Gopher BB for over 60 years. I, too, am tired of all the people who say they like Pitino personally, and think he's a good guy. Well, who could be a nicer, classier individual than Tubby Smith? But the results were in after 7 years, and he wasn't winning. Pitino's lazy instate recruiting, coaching strategies and in-game decisions are pathetic. And does anyone believe he should have been hired for a Big 10 gig in the first place, other than the credentials of his last name? I would think the gradual emptying out of Williams Arena speaks volumes to Coyle. Many meaningful games had an embarrassing turnout. As a long time season ticket holder, I often had trouble finding someone who even wanted to go to the game! That is unacceptable, and so has Pitino's tenure been at the U of M. His job being saved by the coronavirus is extremely disappointing.

  3. avatar
    Mark
    March 24, 2020 at 1:07 pm

    Retaining Pitino was an embarrassment to Mr. Coyle and the school. There obviously are indirect reasons he retained him (Corona perhaps being one) but the bottom line is...(Pitino) is getting a 7th season at a major program, and his school is telling him they have no real standards here. He is at .369 winning percentage in conference, he is .240 on the road, and he's .264 against ranked opponents. He also has one total NCAA win, and (up until now) zero players drafted. Mr. Coyle knows these statistics, and he is telling his fan base this is who we are bringing back to lead for yet another year.

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