Richard Pitino de-activated his Twitter account last week, his standard practice before each basketball season, but not before firing off a final zinger.
“If you have any coaching suggestions, shouting at me from afar in the grocery store is always popular,” he tweeted. “E-mailing my boss is also a favorite.”
Funny stuff, right? Now imagine if Pitino had sent that same tweet before last season. His mentions would have become a dumping ground for snarky responses. Fans might have taken him literally and e-mailed his boss unkind suggestions.
All it takes is a historic turnaround to reshape public perception. The tone of Pitino’s social media signoff also revealed a man comfortable in his own skin entering his fifth season as Gophers men’s basketball coach.
“It’s taken a while but I feel really good about where we’re at with everything,” he said. “Now I think people know me and what I’m all about. So I definitely feel like I’m in a good spot.”
His program has entered a new phase. The Gophers begin this season ranked No. 15 after emerging as one of college basketball’s biggest surprises a year ago. They went 24-10 and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament as Pitino won Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.
The encore brings a new narrative. The Gophers are considered Big Ten contenders capable of making a deep tournament run. Pitino hasn’t been in this position at Minnesota. He always has been on the other end, overseeing a team lacking talent.
Those days were bleak. Now his program oozes confidence.
“I think our [starting] five can compete with anybody,” Pitino said. “If I can get our bench caught up, I think we’ve got a chance.”
The 35-year-old Pitino appears relaxed and settled after surviving an eight-win 2015-16 season that tunneled to rock bottom. He showed his coaching chops last season when he had legitimate Big Ten talent. Success has allowed him to reveal his personality and sense of humor more naturally.
He views outside expectations through the prism of being the son of a coaching legend. Pitino refers to it as “noise” that distracts if consumed by it.
“Growing up when you’re Rick Pitino’s son, anywhere you go there’s always chatter,” he said. “I’m not complaining about my upbringing. I’ve been very, very lucky. But people always assume I am something that I am not. ‘Oh, he’s Rick Pitino’s son. He must be spoiled, he must be a brat, he must be entitled.’ It’s normal. I’m not offended by it.”
He knows perceptions are meaningless, a lesson he shares with his team. Players arrived for practice last week and found a message on the locker room dry-erase board: Congrats on being ranked No. 15!
“With a big exclamation point,” Pitino joked a few days later. “They know I’m making fun of them. I get why we do preseason [rankings]. But I thought we proved last year that all that stuff doesn’t matter.”
At Big Ten media day, Pitino overheard Nate Mason and Jordan Murphy talk goals, stating their desire to win the Big Ten.
“I like the fact that they’re thinking big,” he said. “And I love the fact that they said it publicly so I can dangle it back in their face every opportunity I get.”
Can you tell this is a loose bunch? Pitino faces a different kind of challenge, though. NBA scouts attend practices for the first time since he arrived. The Gophers have legitimate pro prospects now, which is wonderful as long as individual ambition doesn’t interfere with team objectives.
The Gophers excelled last season because they played egoless basketball. Five players averaged between 8.4 and 15.5 points per game. Chemistry and selflessness became their identity.
“If we play the right way,” Pitino said, “everybody can get theirs in the end.”
He uses social media to drive home his point.
“Young kids want love when they walk through campus,” he said. “They care about mentions and Twitter and Instagram. Well, when you win eight games, there’s going to be nothing positive. They knew the only way to get that back was to play the right way. It’s going to be an adjustment for them this year but they have to understand what the blueprint was.”
That blueprint with their talent can take them a long way. Look how much changed in one year. Shouting suggestions to Pitino in the grocery store sounds funny now.