As Richard Pitino made his way to the podium, the Minnesota band booming, the ribbon board in Williams Arena brandishing his name in running circles, the 30-year-old looked ahead, smiling only slightly as he strode past expectant fans.
There’s no doubt Pitino, who was introduced officially as the new Gophers’ men’s basketball coach at a news conference Friday, is well aware of his age. When he took his first head coaching job at Florida International last season, he was the third-youngest coach in college basketball. Smiling too much in this debut could have made him look wide-eyed or shell-shocked.
But conscious or not, Pitino, like at least a few of his new players, looks at his youth as a strength.
“I certainly embrace the fact that I’m young,” Pitino said. “I don’t try to hide from it.”
Pitino didn’t hide from questions, either. As the media floated queries on everything — from recruiting, style of play, the hiring process with athletic director Norwood Teague to his immediate goals — the East Coast native was quick to respond. He tooted all the right horns, complimenting the job, the university, the arena and the people, and paying his respects to Tubby Smith while bringing up better recruiting and a new style of play right away.
At the same time, with Pitino being hired only Wednesday — with negotiations beginning earlier this week — there are still specifics to learn about his new team and new state.
He did, however, offer a snippet of the brand he wants to bring to the Gophers — a fast-paced style marked by lots of defensive pressure — while making a strong statement in suggesting that Minnesota is a destination job for him.
“This is absolutely the place I want to be,” Pitino said. “Me and my wife [Jill] talked about it last night, just how excited we were that we can finally be at a place that we hope to be for the rest of our lives and build something special. I believe this is one of the top basketball jobs in the country, and I believe the University of Minnesota is one of the best universities in the country. So I’m really looking forward to building a program that competes at a very high level.”
As with many coaching searches, Friday’s introduction marked a considerable turnaround from a couple of weeks ago.
Teague fired Tubby Smith on March 25, and at the time Pitino wasn’t, at least publicly, on anyone’s radar. Teague said on Friday that “Richard was always on my list.” Many other names were mentioned in connection to the Gophers’ job, which Teague would not discuss Friday. But the AD was happy with the outcome, calling Pitino a “perfect fit” for Minnesota.
The transition is still in its early stages. Pitino has met with his new team for only 15 minutes, before the news conference on Friday, but the players expressed relief in the process. Austin Hollins said the team was kept mostly in the dark during the search.
“After playing under Coach Smith for three years, and then having to make a transition — you want to make sure you get a guy in here that you’ll know you like, especially with one more year left,” he said. “So, after finding out that it was Coach Pitino, I think there was a lot of relief – everybody could sigh a little bit and get ready to work.”
Pitino understandably didn’t give a lot of specifics about recruiting (talking about individual recruits is an NCAA violation), but he noted fully the importance of finding quality players, an area where Minnesota has struggled in the past.
Pitino reached out to each of the “Big Three” recruits for 2014 — Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis — almost immediately after he agreed to take the job. He also didn’t commit to going after recruits for the upcoming season. The Gophers have three scholarships available after Alvin Ellis said Wednesday he had changed his mind, but Pitino could hoard those for the loaded 2014 class.
“We’re not going to just try to fill scholarships,” Pitino said. “I don’t think that’s the right way to do things. We’ll watch a lot of film over the next couple of days, and [watch] them play and we’ll see what the needs are.”
In the coming days, Pitino will start to put together a staff — an area where Teague suggested he has handed the young coach the reins.
The new Gophers coach may be youthful, but with that trait comes a few others that were once again obvious as he spoke to players, fans, media and boosters: passion and energy.
“When you build a staff, I want to have guys that are hopefully better than me, hopefully guys that will push me every single day, live and die with this program,” Pitino said. “Just live, breathe, eat, sleep basketball.”