Richard Pitino breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday as he grabbed the microphone to address the Williams Arena crowd after the Gophers men’s basketball team escaped Iowa on senior night.
His team won for the first time in more than a month, so it was easier for the fifth-year coach to thank fans for supporting his program through a difficult season.
Difficult likely doesn’t fully describe the past six months for Pitino and his family — from his Hall of Fame father’s September firing as Louisville coach, to several injuries to key players, a player expulsion and the Gophers collapsing with 12 losses in their previous 13 games, including nine in a row before Wednesday.
At least for one night, Gophers faithful showered Pitino and his players with cheers, especially senior Nate Mason following his memorable 33-point performance in his final home game.
Pitino was able to go home Wednesday night and enjoy a victory with his wife and kids. Two years ago during a lengthy losing streak, his oldest, Ava, used to wake him up to ask him if they finally won.
“We beat Iowa and I woke her up to tell her we won,” Pitino said Friday. “She had a big smile on her face. So she’s starting to understand it. I remember the next morning, she was like: ‘I can’t believe you beat Iowa. I don’t know how you won with all those injuries.’ ”
Ava, 6, definitely overheard one of her father’s earlier conversations with her mother, Jill, about the losing streak. Yes, even at home Pitino talks about the reasons why this season went downhill. He says they aren’t excuses, just a tough reality.
Entering Sunday’s regular-season finale at Purdue, the Gophers (15-15, 4-13 Big Ten) are a lock for the 11th seed to open the Big Ten tournament Wednesday. Even an upset of the Boilermakers would not ease the disappointment for a team predicted to be as high as runner-up in the Big Ten.
After last year’s 16-game turnaround set a program record, the Gophers took a big step back in Pitino’s fifth season. Injuries were a huge factor, and a suspension crippled the team. Four of his top six players missed many games.
It started with Eric Curry’s knee injury in August, knocking out the sophomore forward for the season. But the Gophers were 13-3 and 2-1 in conference before center Reggie Lynch was suspended and guard Amir Coffey was diagnosed with a right shoulder injury on the same day in early January. They never recovered from that.
There are reasons and excuses for the team’s record, but “that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from blame,” Pitino said. “There are things we got to continue to get better at, but we sustained a lot of things. That’s why we’re sitting here where we’re at.”
After an 8-23 season in 2015-16, Pitino talked then about concern for his job moving forward, because Mark Coyle was just hired as athletic director. University President Eric Kaler was also extremely critical of the program, especially after off-the-court troubles.
“But I didn’t think I was getting fired,” Pitino said. “I never thought I was getting fired. I had five years left on my contract.”
Pitino said he feels even more secure about his future with the program than in 2016. Coyle and Kaler both have shown support publicly and told him privately they understand he is dealing with issues out of his control. He also has a close relationship with Coyle and signed an extension last season.
“There was uncertainty two years ago, because of a new AD and the president obviously said some things that needed to be said,” Pitino said. “I think now if Dupree [McBrayer] gets healthy, Amir gets healthy, Curry gets healthy, I feel pretty good with where we’re at. So, no, I don’t feel concerned. The fear of the unknown can mess with your mind. I feel great about our situation. I just hate the fact we’ve gone through what we’ve gone through.”
Months before the Gophers’ slide began, Richard Pitino’s father, Rick Pitino, was fired after an FBI probe uncovered an alleged six-figure recruiting payment from a Louisville assistant to a five-star prospect.
Earlier this week, the NCAA infractions committee also ruled that the Cardinals had to vacate more than 100 victories because of the Cardinals’ previous escort sex scandal, including the 2012 Final Four and 2013 national title.
Some critics like to paint Richard Pitino into that trouble as well.
“I’m not trying to separate myself from my dad,” Pitino said. “I’ll always be proud of him. When he’s here [at games], it’s awesome to have him. I hope he takes me to dinner and buys. I hope he sees his grandkids.
“But it’s my program. He doesn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day operations. It’s been like that for five years.”
At 35, Pitino’s one of the youngest Division I coaches. He has already been named Big Ten Coach of the Year, and he owns an NIT title. On the other side of the scale is his dismal Big Ten record: 31-58.
Pitino is not a big fan of social media. He bans his players from using Twitter during the season and deactivates his account to “block out the noise and negativity.” But he still reads what critics have said during a rough season.
The criticism doesn’t bother Pitino as much as when people attack his father’s reputation.
“It’s hard for me as a son because I read stuff,” he said. “You try not to read everything, but you see it. It’s hard to see people talk about your father a certain way. That’s emotional for a son, any son to feel. It’s been very difficult. It really has.”