At this time a year ago, Richard Pitino was just hoping his bosses would keep him around to coach the Gophers men’s basketball team one more season. He wanted to prove his players could rebound from a program record for losses and embarrassing off-court issues.
With the biggest turnaround in Big Ten and program history, Pitino not only earned back the support of fans and administration, but he also earned a new contract.
Pitino signed a one-year extension Wednesday, an agreement that puts the 34-year-old coach under contract through the 2021-22 season.
“I’m obviously excited about continuing to build this program,” Pitino said. “Any time you get an opportunity to sign an extension at a place you love to coach and a place you love to live, you run at the opportunity.”
No financial details were included in the university’s announcement, but Board of Regents Chairman Dean Johnson said the salary and buyout terms would go unchanged. Pitino will make $1.7 million, plus incentives, next season.
The extension, pending Board of Regents approval in a May 12 meeting, comes less than two months after the coach finished what was more than just a bounce-back year in his fourth season.
After an abysmal 8-23 season in 2015-16, a 16-victory turnaround last season made the Gophers the most improved team in college basketball. They went 24-10 and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013.
Johnson said contract negotiations between the U and Pitino’s agent had been ongoing since the NCAA tournament berth was landed in March. He expects there to be a majority vote at the regents meeting to approve the extension.
“He did turn the program around in one fell swoop,” Johnson said. “Ticket sales have certainly been increasing. The fact is that when you have a coach that does [have success], there are openings across the country. And stability is a good thing, winning is a good thing, character-building is a good thing, maturing is a good thing. These things seemed to be happening in the Gophers men’s basketball program. That’s certainly positive.”
A year ago, Pitino had concerns about his job status after a dismal season, especially with a new athletic director being hired.
He had his players write letters to new AD Mark Coyle, U President Eric Kaler and boosters about taking accountability for how poorly they represented the program on and off the court the previous season. That sent a strong message to Coyle, who said the turnaround started at that moment.
“What made it great was each one of them wrote their own letter,” Coyle said recently. “They talked about accountability, ownership of what happened and what a great responsibility it is to be an athlete at the University of Minnesota. They were going to do everything in their power to make it better, and they’ve done that. It was almost like personal contracts if you will.”
Coyle was part of Pitino’s contract negotiation this year. Pitino’s last deal was first discussed under former AD Norwood Teague and finalized with interim AD Beth Goetz in August 2015.
Pitino then received a contract extension through the 2020-21 season, increasing his annual salary to more than $1.6 million. A buyout clause was agreed upon then; the U would have been on the hook for $7.1 million had Pitino been fired last spring.
In the 2021-22 season added to his contract, Pitino is scheduled to make about $1.84 million, plus incentives.
This season, Pitino made more than $2 million after incentives were reached. He received $125,000 in performance bonuses with the Gophers making the NCAA tournament ($50,000), finishing with a winning Big Ten record ($50,000) and winning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors ($25,000).
Some college basketball analysts predict the Gophers will be a top-25 team in 2017-18. They return basically their entire squad and will add two top recruits, four-star point guard Isaiah Washington and three-star shooter Jamir Harris.
Junior guard Nate Mason was the program’s first player to be selected to the All-Big Ten first team since 2005. Guard Amir Coffey was named to the All-Big Ten freshman team and redshirt junior center Reggie Lynch was picked Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
“I always thought we would turn it around, but I never knew to the extent,” Pitino said. “I wanted to get to coach that Year 4 team. I thought that would be the time we could turn the corner — with a good team, with facilities [the Athletes Village is scheduled to open in January 2018]. To be able to do it, and for it to come true, obviously was special. And it was a lot of fun. … As a young coach, you’re trying to build off certain things. Now we can sit in living rooms and talk about really good things to be excited about where we’re going.”