If new Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino had walked into the packed Hyatt Regency conference room on Thursday, stopped and blinked a few times, he’d have to be forgiven.
Now in his second year as a head coach — and his first with the lead job in a high-profile basketball league — Pitino still is having new experiences, figuring things out, making adjustments.
Everything, it seems, has changed.
“It’s a little different than the Sun Belt media day,” Pitino said at the Big Ten’s annual media day Thursday, a day before the Gophers play host to Cardinal Stritch in an exhibition opener. “I don’t think we actually had one, if I remember correctly.”
The 31-year-old Gophers coach is no stranger to prime time. He’s the son of Rick Pitino, Louisville’s legendary college coach who also led the NBA’s Knicks and Celtics. The younger Pitino has worked as an assistant coach under him, and under Billy Donovan at Florida.
But there is plenty of acclimating still ahead. First are the sheer logistics: media days — coming from Florida International, the media hordes at all — and all the things that come with jumping into a new league where every event is unfamiliar.
“That first year is so difficult,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “You haven’t been to a lot of the arenas. You don’t even know where you’re staying. You don’t know the routines. The officiating is always different when you go league to league — it’s not bad, it’s just different — so there are a lot of things that he has to go through right now that all will help him to be a better coach. As a coach that moved around a lot, those first years are very trying on you, your family, everyone.”
Nebraska coach Tim Miles remembers well his first season in the Big Ten a year ago, after making the jump from Colorado State. Coaching at Crisler Center at Michigan, Miles found the lights were brighter, and hotter than he’d expected. He remembers looking at Beilein and understanding why the coach’s sleeves always were rolled up. The Huskers’ next game was at Michigan State and Breslin Center, the underbelly of which Miles walked out of right before tipoff to face Spartans coach Tom Izzo, who already was seated on his stool, waiting for the new coach.
“Who do you think you are? Bobby Knight?” Izzo said in jest. “Get your butt out here.”
“He gave me a nice lecture,” said Miles with a laugh. “So that was my introduction to the Big Ten.”
What might be the bigger adjustment for Pitino is the conference’s styles of play. While coaches say the Big Ten isn’t even close to its old reputation — slow-down, grind-it-out basketball — there isn’t really anything quite like the up-tempo system that Pitino says he wants to play.
“From the standpoint of style, I think it will be unique,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
In a way, that is kind of fitting for the “new” Big Ten. While teams such as Indiana, Michigan and Illinois like to run, there are other teams, such as Wisconsin, that actively work to slow things down. Iowa has been known to press quite a bit. Northwestern, until this season, has played a Princeton-style offense — although new coach Chris Collins has said he will probably keep some of those aspects.
“Maybe 10 years ago there was a tag of not running, walking up the court, but I think it’s changed,” Groce said. “It’s a lot different now. There are different styles, and there are coaches pushing the ball, coaches that are aggressively pushing the envelope on defense more, and on offense.”
A near-constant press would make the Gophers not just unique in the Big Ten, but one of the few active pressing teams left in the country, Beilein said — which would make for an adjustment for opposing offenses. But the surrounding variety also gives Pitino a lot of styles to watch and learn.
Groce said he drew on his previous experience as an assistant at Ohio State when he took the Illinois job a year ago. Collins, who is in his first head coaching job, was previously an assistant at Duke for 13 years — but has coached games at Michigan State, at Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Purdue, and at Indiana, either through scheduled games or the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, and says he greatly values those experiences.
Pitino doesn’t have the same specific encounters, which just means he’ll have to learn as he goes and adjust on the fly. That seems to be just fine with the young coach, who isn’t getting too far ahead of himself. So when Beilein called recently to ask him what he thought of Minnesota’s Big Ten schedule, Pitino told him the truth: He, well, hadn’t looked at it.
Pitino shrugged and laughed. “What’s that going to do except keep me up at night?” he said.