The Gophers’ activity on the court isn’t the only thing that’s undergone a massive change from a year ago.
This year, the sideline is getting some good exercise as well.
Watching new coach Richard Pitino’s personal coaching style couldn’t be more different from that of Tubby Smith, who stayed mostly reserved, a year ago.
Smith made use of the stool each coach has available on the raised court just in front of their benches, often taking a seat and not getting up for much, especially if the Gophers weren’t playing very well.
For Pitino, the stool is more like an obstacle on an ever changing course – something not to trip over. (After the first exhibition game, Pitino noted it was something he had to get used to – “That stool, it was like everywhere I turned, it was in my way, it was like following me,” he said with a laugh.)
Instead, PItino strolls the floor so much that at times he threatens to get in the game himself. On Tuesday, after some interesting calls by the officials, the Minnesota coach flung his jacket and tie at the bench in a fit of rage. When the Gophers are not playing well, Pitino is living and dying with every defensive possession on the sideline. When the Gophers are playing well, Pitino is still living and dying with every defensive possession. From tip-off to final buzzer, the coach doesn’t stop moving.
“He’s fiery man, I love playing for him,” DeAndre Mathieu said after the Gophers win on Tuesday. “His style of play and his intensity just keeps you going, makes you want to play hard … He’s fiery all the time. Even with the jacket on, the tie on, he’s a competitor.”
A coaching change usually brings a lot of adjustments for a team. There are new plays, a new system and new in-game allowances (how tight a script vs. how much freedom to improvise). But the first adjustment for a team is a new personal coaching style – how that new person teaches, how he communicates, what he expects.
With Pitino, the Gophers have found a lot of changes. Unlike Smith, Pitino is very vocal about exactly which things his players need to work on – and even outlines them in a blog he writes for the Gophers’ website. He doesn’t pull punches with them, or with the media. At the same time, through nine games that have already featured some pretty significant ups and downs, the coach has maintained a steady message about his players. He never takes a dig at someone, and many times will defend them after the media thinks they’ve had a bad night (often saying that he doesn’t worry about shots falling or offensive production all the time if a player is working hard on defense and doing the little things).
“We love it,” Austin Hollins said. “He’s real interactive in practice. When we’re doing good he praises us and when we’re doing bad, he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He’s going to come in and tell you you need to fix it and in the end it makes us better as players.
“I think [my teammates] don’t mind bluntness because he balances it out when they’re doing the right thing. So they appreciate him telling him what they need to hear. He doesn’t sugarcoat it, so you know exactly what you’re doing wrong and you know how to fix it, and when you do it right, he’ll tell you good job.”
With the Gophers apparently crystal clear about their roles, many of them have looked surprisingly more confident and efficient and aggressive than a year ago. Perhaps part of the intensity carries over from the sideline, where Pitino starts the engine.
“We know what he wants from us from us, and that’s good, we have a good mutual relationship,” Andre Hollins said. “This is fun.”