Last night we attended "Rock of Ages" at the Venetian in Las Vegas, finishing off an excellent and warm weekend in Sin City. About nine hours after that ended, we were back in Minneapolis for a scheduled sit-down with new Gophers men's basketball coach Richard Pitino. Here is a taste of what he had to say:
Q It’s been about a week on the job now. What has stood out to you so far?
A The thing that stood out to me the most is the love for the University of Minnesota and all the programs. It’s very unique. Normally places I’ve been it’s divided in the fan bases. Hey, we may love the football team but we don’t love basketball. Or we love basketball but we don’t love baseball. This is the first place I’ve worked where [fans] love every single sport and are passionate about it. … It’s impressive, the pride of this place.
Q You’re coming into recruiting kind of late. How do you divide your time between the class of 2013 – of which the Gophers have zero incoming kids after two de-committed – and the class of 2014?
A We certainly have immediate needs now that we need to try to address. Then we also have to make sure we’re doing our job to jump on rising seniors. The most important thing is getting a great staff in here and being organized with our time. I experienced the same thing last year at FIU, but it was much more difficult because I had six guys walk into my office and transfer or drop out. Here I don’t have that. We have some nice pieces still here. Being able to work the guys out has helped. I can get a feel for what I want and what I think we need. I don’t want to take the wrong guy. I don’t want to just fill a roster. Scholarships, they’re like gold.
Q How does the current roster fit the up-tempo style you want to play, which is different that the previous system?
A I think we have some pieces to be able to do that with Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, they have good speed. Joe Coleman has good athleticism. Maverick can shoot the ball. A guy like Oto can shoot the basketball from what I’ve seen. That was why we won last year at FIU. We brought in guys who fit the style, and I think the style took over. We have to do the same here in a couple weeks.
Q When the Minnesota job first became a reality, as in it could happen, what was going through your head?
A My wife [Jill] and I would always joke, we’d sit in the house in Miami and say, “where are we going to raise Ava, our daughter?" I always said, "Jill, you will never be able to predict what’s next." Sure enough, the Minnesota opportunity comes up. It was a great opportunity in a special place with a special fan base and a great university with a great AD in Norwood Teague. When the opportunity came, I ran with it. … I think she’s excited now because we can have some stability. She’s excited about that. As an assistant coach, you never know where you might turn. At Florida International, it was great, they were great to us, but you never knew if an opportunity would present itself. She’s excited to establish a life here. I’m excited to settle down and build a life here.
Q This team is coming off an NCAA tournament berth and a win in its first game. That said, some key pieces are missing. What are your expectations for next year?
A My expectations are that I am hoping to develop a culture of hard, hard work. My expectations are that these guys get better every single day, that they do the right things in the classroom and on campus. My expectations are the kids get better and I can establish my brand. It’s really hard when you take over a job to set goals from wins and losses. Certainly Coach Smith established a lot of great things here. But I’m not going to look at wins and losses in year one. We’ve lost some pretty big pieces. Mbakwe and Williams are two very good players.
Q Does it worry you that Tubby Smith had a certain level of accomplishment here and that it still wasn’t enough for Norwood?
A No, because we have a lot of things we can reference back on that Coach Smith did. What would worry me is if he never won any games or didn’t go to the tournament. Coach Smith showed you can do it. We have a lot of things to be proud of.
Q But that wasn’t enough for Smith to keep his job.
A Coaches don’t think that way. I think they get excited about what could be and the potential of this place. When you get a great athletic director … the sky is the limit. Norwood Teague is going to take us to that. I really believe it.
Q You’ve brought in a few assistants so far. When you bring up Kimani Young to administrators, how does that conversation start considering his past that everyone knows about?
A They were great because it you look at Kimani’s story, Kimani made a mistake 14 years ago. And if you ever met Kimani you would be shocked by it. When you look back to what he’s done over the last 14 years, he’s rebuilt his life from the ground up. … I had an opportunity to get to know him when I was at Florida, and when I got to know him as a person, I had zero doubts. When I took the job at FIU, I brought him along. When I took the job here, I had no problem fighting for him because I believe in him and the influence he can have on kids.
Q You brought up practice facility in your introductory press conference and you downplayed it, but how important will that be eventually here?
A I’d say this: I’ve recruited at Louisville and Florida, and they’ve had practice facilities. And I don’t think one kid has come because of a practice facility. When the time comes and we get it, it will probably help my life in the fact that it will be easier. But guys aren’t going to come here because of practice facility. Guys are going to come here because of conference – best in the country. Great fan base? One of the best in the country. A great university? Certainly one of the best in the country. And then they’re going to come because of me and my staff. All those [facilities] are nice, but that’s not what’s going to build a program.