If Norwood Teague was searching for a good recommendation when he was considering hiring Richard Pitino to coach the Gophers men’s basketball team, he had to be delighted when he talked to Pete Garcia.
“He put us on the map,” said Garcia, the athletic director at Florida International and Pitino’s former boss.
Teague, athletic director at the University of Minnesota, introduced Pitino as the Gophers coach Friday at Williams Arena after hiring the 30-year-old away from Florida International, where he won 18 games and came a basket away from making the NCAA tournament.
Garcia no doubt hated to lose Pitino, but he thinks the Gophers are getting a real star.
“What he did with this basketball team and these players, making them believe in something, I’ve never seen a job like that,” Garcia said. “Minnesota has just landed a great basketball coach. He is a complete package as far as a coach and a leader of men.
“He leaves us in a lot better shape than he found us. I also want to thank [Pitino’s father, Louisville coach] Rick Pitino and all the support that he showed this program and continues to show this program. He communicated to me last night that [Louisville and Florida International] still got a game next year and I said, ‘You bet, we got a game.’ ”
Garcia added that there was a lot of interest in his school’s basketball job a year ago before Richard Pitino was hired to replace Isiah Thomas, and that because of the great job Pitino did in building the program, Garcia can safely say that interest in the suddenly open job has tripled now.
Florida International had issues with a low Academic Progress Rate, but Garcia said: “Richard inherited an APR issue and he had a solid year, not just the 18 wins on the court but [improvement] in the classroom. Any issues that we have with APR when the NCAA releases that in the summer is not on Richard. He has helped improve that drastically.”
Garcia was asked if anything could have been done to keep Pitino at Florida International.
“After the season we talked and we had agreed to a modest pay raise, but if the figures of $9 million [over six years] from Minnesota are any indication, then FIU can’t go there at this time,” Garcia said.
“I was very intrigued by the type of basketball that we played this year. Not only did he win, but that high-pressing style that he played I think fits us to a T.”
Had Pitino remained at Florida International he might have operated under NCAA sanctions for violations that occurred when Thomas was the team’s coach from 2009-12.Thomas was 26-65 at FIU and left the program in a mess that Pitino cleaned up.
Learned to recruit from the best
One of the big challenges for Pitino will be to try to sell the three top recruits in the state — current juniors Tyus Jones of Apple Valley, Rashad Vaughn of Cooper and Reid Travis of DeLaSalle — on his exciting style of play.
I think Pitino has a chance to land Vaughn and Travis. Jones, one of the top recruits in the country, seems likely to land at Duke or Michigan State.
Pitino said he learned about recruiting by coaching under his father at Louisville and Billy Donovan at Florida.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to learn under two of the best coaches to coach the game,” he said. “And I’ve taken a lot of what they do and it has worked very well over many, many years and it has put guys in position to play for many, many years. I think that is what the selling point is going to be.”
And how did Pitino sell himself to Teague?
“It was not me selling myself and it wasn’t him selling himself,” Pitino said. “It was a very comfortable process. It was more, I think with Norwood, we have got to get the right fit and we have got to get a guy who can work together.
“And he is one of the best ADs in the country.”
Bjugstad getting started
Nick Bjugstad told the Miami Herald that he was looking forward to his first game with the Florida Panthers on Saturday night after a “quick process” that saw the former Gophers forward sign with the NHL team last week.
“It will be a fun first game, and it will be surreal for me,” said Bjugstad, who played three seasons for the Gophers before signing an entry level contract with Florida. “I’ve always wanted to play in the NHL since I was little.”
Bjugstad centered the third line and did not score as the Panthers, last in the Eastern Conference, lost to Washington 4-3. Florida has 10 games remaining.
“This will be a good learning experience for him. If he does well, it will make it that much easier for him at training camp next year. It’s a good chance to evaluate him,” said Florida General Manager Dale Tallon.
Former Twins doing well
Michael Cuddyer is hitting .450 with two home runs and four RBI in five games for Colorado this season.
Another ex-Twins outfielder, Jason Kubel, hit his first home run for Arizona on Saturday, and is batting .286 despite battling some lingering knee injuries.
Joe Nathan continues his great comeback from Tommy John surgery in 2010. Nathan, another ex-Twin, has pitched two scoreless innings with one save for the Rangers this season.
• Look for the local business group that controls the new Vikings stadium to apply for the NCAA Final Four the first year the stadium is ready in 2017.
• Kimani Young, the assistant Florida International coach who will join Pitino, was a 1,000-point scorer as an athlete at UTEP and wasn’t a college coach until last season. Young does have extensive ties to New York City basketball.
• Tubby Smith hasn’t informed any of his Gophers assistants whether he will have them join him at Texas Tech.
• Alex Foster, the Chicago basketball recruit who was set to play for Smith, says he is still committed and wants to get to know Pitino. Alvin Ellis, the other Chicago-area recruit, de-committed.
• Gophers football coach Jerry Kill’s report on last year’s outstanding freshman wide receiver Jamel Harbison, who had knee surgery last year: “He’s been cleared to practice, and we’ll be real cautious and careful with him. But you know, he just needs to get back in it. And is he where he was when he started? No. But nobody is [100 percent] coming off those surgeries, except for maybe Adrian Peterson.”
• Trevor Mbakwe’s agent will be a good one. Andy Miller represents Kevin Garnett and other top players. • Gophers junior defenseman Mark Alt, who is expected to join the Flyers organization even though he hasn’t signed a contract, was an outstanding quarterback at Cretin-Derham Hall and would have been eligible to be a candidate for the Gophers football team.
• Zach Budish and Seth Helgeson of the Gophers hockey team have signed amateur tryout deals. Budish will play with Milwaukee in the American Hockey League and Helgeson with Albany of the AHL.