BYRON, MINN. – After an hour of shaking hands, making small talk and munching on burgers and tater tots, Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino had only to wait.
He sat through another hour as emcee Mike Grimm told a maroon-and-gold-clad crowd at the Somerby Golf Club that 2015-16 was the athletic department’s most successful season overall.
He listened as several of the school’s coaches waxed about Big Ten tournament wins, NCAA championship finishes, national rankings and first-team All-Americas.
Finally, Pitino trudged to the podium, the final act of Wednesday’s final stop on the Gopher Road Trip, a yearly caravan around the state.
“This was just what I needed …” he deadpanned. “I get to hear about how everyone else here is doing so great, and they save me for last. This is great for the psyche, so thank you.”
While others excitedly recapped the preceding months, Pitino, heading into his fourth season, made it clear he hoped Wednesday would be the last time he’d have to delve into topics less joyous: an 8-23 campaign that struck several program lows and a rash of off-court troubles.
“I’ll talk a little bit about last season and then I’m never talking about it again,” Pitino, 33, said.
Most of his message, rather, focused on lessons drawn from the past and optimism for the future, his tone shifting from lighthearted self-deprecation and humility to sincerity in retrieving the community’s trust.
He admitted to the media earlier that morning that he thought last year’s team “did not have an identity” and joked with the crowd that he had secretly wished the home game against sixth-ranked Maryland — ultimately a win, and one of the winter’s few highlights — would get snowed out.
But then Pitino gushed about the local freshmen who join the fold this summer, a hefty upcoming schedule, and the experience, size, depth and talent of next season’s bunch.
Change is coming, he believes, but it requires more waiting.
“The toughest thing is sitting and waiting,” Pitino said before taking the podium.
“We want to get back on the court. … Because we understand the perception right now, and that perception needs to change. We constantly are preaching about culture and about respect. And we’re going to get back to showing people that’s what we’re all about.”
To that point, Pitino talked about bringing in speakers — from a wide spectrum of backgrounds — to meet with his team weekly.
He is kicking off the summer workouts with a barbecue at his house on Sunday, once all the new players are in town, to talk about expectations.
He talked, sentimentally, about watching Gophers fans remain in their seats throughout last year’s struggles.
He hoped, he said, improvement on the court and off will make them proud again.
And of course, he hopes next year he’ll spring to the podium, rather than eyeing the exits.
“I truly believe it was a great learning experience for everybody in the program, including myself,” he said.
“We all know we’ve got to get better, we all know we’ve got to represent this great university on and off the court.
“So hopefully I don’t have to sit through these things next year and keep inching toward the back.”