A day after University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said he was “profoundly disappointed” in the Gophers men’s basketball program as he introduced new athletic director Mark Coyle, coach Richard Pitino addressed both his job security and his role in reversing the steady flow of negative news produced by his team and players.
“We lost a lot of games and we had a couple of guys get in trouble, obviously. When that happens, you’re going to get criticized,” Pitino said. “I deserve that. I accept that and own that. It’s my responsibility to fix this. Nobody else’s.”
Asked if he thought university leaders were building a case to get rid of him, Pitino said: “I certainly hope not. I want to be here for a long time … I hope they want me to stay and hope they believe in me because I believe in what we’re doing and I believe we will turn it around.”
His first chance to make that impression on Coyle came in a noon meeting Thursday, after Pitino talked to the Star Tribune. Pitino praised the job interim AD Beth Goetz did but added he was looking forward to a “much more stable situation” in the department with a permanent AD hired.
Coyle, too, said Thursday morning that he was looking forward to meeting with Pitino. “I just want to learn about him, and I want to learn about his program,” Coyle said.
Following the meeting, Pitino said this through an athletic department spokesman: “After getting a chance to meet with Mark, I am extremely excited to have him lead our athletic department. We share the same vision for the program, and I know we will work together to accomplish great things and be successful.”
A clean slate could be a good thing for the coach and his program. Pitino’s Gophers won only eight of 31 games in 2015-16, a season that ended with controversy after he suspended three players for their role in sex video posted on social media and also kicked senior Carlos Morris off the team.
In the last week, transfer Reggie Lynch was arrested and held in jail on probable cause for criminal sexual misconduct. He was released after not being charged, though the investigation is ongoing and he could still be charged. The Star Tribune also reported that Pitino had far exceeded his budget on private air travel.
Of the report that he overspent on jet travel — a story based on an internal university audit — Pitino said Thursday that all the travel was recruiting-based and was approved by the athletic department.
“Yeah, so here’s what happened: I would go to [former AD] Norwood [Teague] and say, ‘I understand what’s in my contract. Are there other ways to do this within the rules, doing it the right way?’ ” Pitino said. When asked if he knew where the extra money came from, Pitino said: “I have to be honest, I don’t really know. I just ran it by them, and they approved it. A lot of times things are approved and a lot of times things are not approved, but we are very mindful of our spending.”
Gail Klatt, the university associate vice president who oversaw the audit, downplayed the private jet spending in remarks to a University of Minnesota Board of Regents committee Thursday. She stressed how important it was that the same audit into the men’s and women’s basketball programs found no academic issues and only minor compliance issues.
“Those are two very, very positive outcomes,” Klatt said. “The financial issues — they can be dealt with. But if we had problems in the academic arena, that would be way more difficult to deal with.”
Still, in his opening remarks Wednesday, Kaler singled out the men’s basketball program for its “continuing episodes, poor judgment [and] alleged crimes,” saying that it “simply can’t continue.”
Pitino said he accepts responsibility for his players’ behavior — and the responsibility to turn the program around.
“I’m held accountable, and that’s the way it should be,” Pitino said. “That’s never going to change, and I’m very comfortable with that. It’s my responsibility to not only win games but ensure these guys are acting the right way in the community and in the classroom. That’s what I signed up for.”
Staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this report.