Just as Minnesota weather falls into two categories — winter and not-winter — University of Minnesota revenue coaches are the target of one of two sentiments.
Maroon-wearing loyalists either want them fired, or fear they will leave.
It’s always one or the other. If the incumbent coach loses, the loyalists call for removal. If the incumbent coach wins, the loyalists shudder in fear he or she will soon be seen on a flight out of town with one of those lottery-sized checks stuffed in the overhead compartment.
The stamps on Richard Pitino’s coaching passport reveals he has visited both destinations in the past two seasons. He presided over one of the worst seasons in Gophers basketball history last year. He initiated one of the most dramatic turnarounds in Gophers sports history this year.
Saturday, the best Gophers men’s basketball team since 2005 or maybe 1997 cruised past Penn State 81-71 in front of a sellout crowd at Williams Arena.
The Gophers are 22-7 overall and 10-6 in the Big Ten. They likely will receive a strong seed in the NCAA tournament and, if Reggie Lynch continues to block shots without fouling, they could be dangerous regardless of the opponent in March.
Pitino will receive consideration for the Big Ten Coach of the Year award. Now that his team has won seven in a row he should receive consideration for National Coach of the Year.
Which means you will soon read more stories like this: Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel named Pitino as a candidate for the South Florida job.
Thamel is a quality reporter, but this is common national-writer filler-fodder. Relax, people. Pitino will not be leaving a young, rising team and an excellent recruiting class right before the construction of a new practice facility.
Pitino is set up to win for at least the next few years in the Big Ten. Leaving now would be silly, and Pitino has earned more complimentary adjectives than that.
He handled himself with as much class as possible during his program’s embarrassments last year. He is handling his breakthrough season with class and good humor. It is safe to enjoy this team, and it is safe to enjoy Pitino’s leadership.
His players seem to. He high-fived McBrayer after a spectacular second-half dunk. McBrayer has thrived since Pitino replaced him in the starting lineup with Akeem Springs, just as Springs has become an important personality on the team despite a preseason tweet complaining about his role.
Pitino said he had a tough-love talk with Jordan Murphy that led to his tenacious rebounding, which in turn led to the winning streak. Pitino also has had the good taste to shift credit to his players.
No Gophers men’s basketball team has ever improved by eight conference victories in one season. With one win in their next two games, this team would become the first.
So … how differently is Pitino being treated around town than a year ago?
“Oh man,” he said. “People weren’t talking to me. Everybody is very friendly, but this is what you dream of, to play well, to get the fan support, to get the city behind you. Because this state is so proud not only of basketball but of the university and when it’s good, it’s awesome.
“It’s fun. It’s fun to be the Gopher basketball coach right now, and I think we’ve really turned the corner.”
The last Gophers team to improve by seven conference victories and reach 10 Big Ten victories was led by a senior guard (Aaron Robinson) and a junior scorer (Vincent Grier). The 2004-05 Gophers were shallow and not built to last.
This team is. Only one rotation player is a senior — Springs. The Gophers’ most important freshmen, sophomores and recruits have star potential.
If Pitino wins big, a national power eventually will bid for him. But he’s not leaving for South Florida this summer, and Gophers fans should relax and realize that the best thing that could happen to Gophers basketball this season is happening:
Richard Pitino has become the kind of coach other schools want to hire.