OWATONNA, Minn. – Before the head coaches spoke in front of hundreds of Gophers fans Tuesday at Torey’s Restaurant and Bar in Owatonna, athletic director Mark Coyle tried to warm up the crowd by introducing his “Big Five” representing the U’s highest-profile sports.
The coach receiving the biggest round of applause was no surprise.
The second Coyle mentioned women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen, the room lit up to welcome her on the first stop in the Gophers coaches caravan tour, which connects with fans throughout the state during the spring and summer.
“Everywhere I go in Minnesota, I have to make sure to mention that I hired Lindsay Whalen,” Coyle said with a smile.
The biggest question of the night was also not surprising.
Men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino mingled with Gophers faithful before the event. After being congratulated on the team’s NCAA tournament victory and his recent two-year extension, everyone asked if junior standout Amir Coffey was coming back to college or staying in the NBA draft.
“I don’t think a decision has been made,” Pitino said. “I just want what’s best for him. At the end of the day, if he gets drafted, that’s a dream of his. That’s something where we want him to achieve that goal whether it’s this year or the next.”
Coffey, a 6-8 guard, led the Gophers with 16.6 points and 3.2 assists last season to earn All-Big Ten honors. His breakout performances down the stretch in conference play helped the Gophers reach their second NCAA tournament in three years and defeat Louisville in the first round in Des Moines.
Pitino expected Coffey to declare early for the NBA draft and hire an agent. The former Hopkins standout is taking advantage of new NCAA rules allowing non-seniors to go through the full draft process and retain their eligibility as long as they announce their decision to return to college by May 29.
In the past two months, Coffey has worked out for nearly a dozen NBA teams and participated in the NBA G League Elite Camp earlier this month in Chicago. The camp didn’t lead to an invite for Coffey to last week’s NBA combine, but several more teams are showing interest. He worked out for the Boston Celtics on Monday and will compete in a pro day in New York on Thursday.
“Amir is going through the process of what he’s allowed to do,” Pitino told the audience. “This is a part of recruiting really good players. We haven’t had an NBA player drafted since Kris Humphries in 2004. That’s not good at all. So when a guy like Amir Coffey’s trying to go to the NBA, selfishly I want him back, but we need to support that. If next Wednesday, he does stay in, we’re going to support him, we’re going to root for him and we’re going to hope he wears an NBA jersey.”
Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck closed the event Tuesday night by piggybacking on Pitino’s point about wanting the U’s top athletic programs to produce more potential pro players. Fleck had linebacker Blake Cashman get picked in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the New York Jets this spring.
“We’re here to change all that,” Fleck said. “Whether it’s [men’s hockey coach Bob] Motzko, whether it’s Lindsay, whether it’s [volleyball coach] Hugh [McCutcheon] or Richard, we’re all here to change that, I promise you.”