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Money Unlikely to Stop Pitino Buyout

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March 1, 2021

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Via social media, emails and private conversations the verdict is in to fire University of Minnesota men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino.

No argument here. He should have been told to move on three years ago.

However, the public won’t decide Pitino’s fate. The decision will be made by school athletic director Mark Coyle and president Joan Gabel. Coyle’s job is to lead the athletic department and bring important matters to Gabel. There is no reason to believe that the relatively new president (started in 2019) will not follow the recommendations of her department head.

If Coyle wants to replace Pitino, I don’t think money will deter him and Gabel from doing so. This opinion is based on talking with authoritative sources with present or past connections to the University. They understand the second-guessing that will come with a decision to shake up the basketball program given the budget deficit facing the U and the bad feelings in place from eliminating three men’s sports, but they also see a path to make a change and enhance future revenues.

Richard Pitino

Pitino’s contract buyout is for $1.75 million and that’s just the beginning of expenses for past U mistakes that include extending his contract and providing a sizeable retention bonus. There presumably will also be expenses incurred with settling contracts from Pitino’s staff, and certainly costs associated with bringing in a new coaching staff. Those expenses could include money to cover the new head coach’s buyout at his old school and a possible salary larger than Pitino’s $2 million.

Budgets are always a challenging issue in the (generally) self-supporting U athletic department. Money is dramatically more sensitive now because of the pandemic, and a department deficit for this school year could total $50 million or more. It was reported in December the entire University of Minnesota system is facing about a $166 million overall budget shortfall by fiscal year end in June.

In the months ahead money via a loan (or perhaps sale of bonds) is expected to bolster the system budget. A significant portion of the money (whatever that sum is) will go to Gopher athletics, perhaps totaling over $50 million.

The athletic department has borrowed money in the past from the U central administration. This isn’t new ground, although past amounts are believed to be less than $10 million. Those loans had to be paid back and presumably this would be the expectation when the department receives a mega loan to work with for school year 2021-2022.

Part of the loan could be targeted to pay for changes with the basketball program. This scenario makes funding for a new direction in basketball viable. And Coyle, if he chooses, could forecast significant increases in future revenues with a successful new coach. Interest in the program has declined during Pitino’s eight years but there is potential for Gopher basketball to be the cash cow it once was.

The combination of high ticket prices and regular sellouts once put the Gophers toward the top of the Big Ten in basketball revenues. There was even a time in the 1980s when Gopher basketball TV ratings were second in the market only to the Vikings.

If Coyle and Gabel pursue a change, they will need final approval from the Board of Regents. Generally, the board’s position is to be supportive of the president and her leaders. Thumbs down by the regents on major decisions is unusual and could signal a breach with the president. I don’t see that happening if final approval of a new direction for basketball is presented.

Coyle and Gabel won a 7-5 regents vote last year to eliminate men’s gymnastics, indoor track and tennis. The savings for one year will be similar to the cost of Pitino’s buyout, but over five years and longer the savings will be considerably more, supporters of the move would say. The controversial downsizing, leaving the U with 22 sports in the athletic department, is also based on Title IX issues, per Coyle.

Eyes glaze over trying to understand the details and explanations about eliminating the three sports. But the programs aren’t coming back unless there is miraculous outside funding (keep your eye on tennis). Non-revenue sports are being cut all over the country as schools struggle through the pandemic and its impact on finances. The 22 sports total at Minnesota is more than many prominent universities elsewhere support.

Minnesota has three revenue producing sports in football, basketball and men’s hockey. All have considerably more financial upside for the athletic department treasury that depends on local and Big Ten revenues including the TV money machine (so far broadcast rights fees continue to escalate).

As an AD, Coyle has to judge his coaches on more than how many games they win and how much money they dump into the program’s coffers. Coyle looks at a coach’s relationships with his players and their academics. He makes judgments about how that coach works with him and others in the department. He must hold the coach accountable for compliance with NCAA and department policies. Certainly Pitino checked some boxes favorably over the years to hold Coyle’s support.

Fans don’t even think about such matters and that’s understandable. Big time college basketball is a business and the public isn’t buying the product. In eight years Pitino, hired by failed athletic director Norwood Teague, has a Big Ten record of 54-94, a winning percentage of .365. Only twice have his teams made the NCAA Tournament, winning one game. This season’s team is 6-11 in conference games and in free fall having lost five consecutive outings.

Gopher basketball is potentially better than this—much better. Both in quality and depth the state’s talent pool of high school players is nationally praised. The U is the only school in the state representing a powerhouse basketball conference, and that should make recruiting easier than at many other places.

Closing down the state’s recruiting borders has been a laughable thought this millennium and no one expects it to happen any time soon—perhaps never. But from home grown walk-on kids to blue chip future pros, the U can be much more successful with its in-state recruiting while still looking for players beyond its borders. With a transformation led by the right head coach, the Gophers can annually take up residence among the better teams in the Big Ten.

The chorus of critics is singing that tune today.

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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.

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