Despite another blast of embarrassment last week to the Gophers men’s basketball team, coach Richard Pitino likely will be given the opportunity to turn the program around.
The 33-year-old has lost some fans and boosters in this season of historically bad basketball and troubling off-court incidents, but several Star Tribune interviews last week revealed that support in some high places in and around the university has not greatly eroded.
Even more foretelling of Pitino’s return is his contract, which calls for $7 million in buyout payments should the university fire him this offseason. Norwood Teague — in one of his last acts as athletic director before resigning because of accusations of sexual harassment by two university employees — signed Pitino to a two-year extension this past summer that both gave the coach a raise and more than doubled the buyout terms, increasing them by a whopping $4 million.
“Seven million is a good chunk of change, no doubt about it,” University of Minnesota Board of Regents Chairman Dean Johnson said. “Does it weigh into the equation? I would guess it does.”
The Gophers’ latest battle with adversity came when guards Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer were suspended Tuesday for the remainder of the season following the posting of two sex videos to Dorsey’s social media sites. After those postings, Dorsey reported to Bloomington police that his phone was stolen days earlier. On Feb. 17, senior Carlos Morris had been booted from the Gophers for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Without all those players, the shorthanded Gophers have been blown out their past three games, including Saturday’s 75-52 road loss to a Rutgers team that was in danger of completing a winless Big Ten season.
These incidents have bolstered the anti-Pitino sentiment that has grown louder throughout this woeful season. Richard Coffey, a former Gophers player and the father of Pitino’s top commitment, Amir, said this week’s turmoil raised new questions for the Coffeys. If Pitino’s best recruiting class falls apart, his status could quickly change.
Wednesday night, however, about an hour before the Gophers wobbled their way through a 62-49 loss to Wisconsin in their final home game, interim athletic director Beth Goetz waved off every opportunity to put pressure on Pitino, who has also presided over in the past 16 months another player dismissal and a player being arrested on two felony charges of domestic assault.
“Student-athletes and students make poor decisions,” Goetz said. “We want to make sure our coaches are continually educating them, being good role models and setting good examples. And when [the players] don’t [follow that], our expectations is that they take appropriate action and hold them accountable.
“We believe, in this situation, [Pitino] did that.”
Earlier that day, Johnson played golf with a host of Gophers supporters in Arizona. Addressing all of them, he asked what they would do if they were the athletic director.
“Almost unanimously, it was ‘Retain him,’ ” Johnson said. “ ‘Give him a chance.’ And these were folks from all over the state.”
Pitino said Friday he has felt that backing during a tumultuous season.
“Everybody has been great with me,” he said. “[Goetz has] been so supportive. The president [Eric Kaler] has been great. I know on the surface, when you’re not winning and you have off-the-court issues like we’ve had, people are going to ask questions. And it’s going to be easy to jump to certain conclusions. The tough thing to do is sit back and understand and support. And I feel like we’ve had that.”
University communications declined to make Kaler available to comment on this story.
Pitino received a $400,000 annual raise last summer, increasing his salary to $1.6 million, and he is signed through April 2021. If he’s still the Gophers coach April 30, he will receive a “contract fulfillment incentive” of $450,000. Pitino’s buyout before the Teague extension was $3 million.
Concerns and more
Pitino is at the helm of one of the worst Gophers teams in generations. Rutgers had lost 32 games vs. Big Ten teams in a row — until Saturday, when it routed the decimated Gophers. Add on the off-court problems, and it’s no surprise the calls for Pitino’s job on web and talk-radio forums have become frequent. But the frustration goes beyond fans.
Richard Coffey said last week’s sex video reports took “concerns” to a new level. “I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t concerned about some of this stuff, and some of the things that have happened over there this year,” he said, adding later: “I think any parent would have some questions running through their mind right now.”
Others wondered why the message about appropriate conduct hadn’t fully sunk in.
“In a basketball program, you’ve got to have an environment and culture off the court as well as on the court,” former player and current booster Paul Presthus said. “Some coaches trust it to be almost apparent. But there’s a lot of responsibility there.
“At the very least, it causes you to revisit what is in place and what’s going on here, because it is a cause for concern.”
A fan at Williams Arena last week was more than concerned. “I think [the program] is in trouble,” alum Megan Steel said. “It’s sad. They need to revamp the program — change all the way around — and this could be an opportunity.”
Change would come at a cost that could potentially be unprecedented at Minnesota. Many remember the Gophers forking over big buyouts in the recent past: $2.5 million to former basketball coach Tubby Smith, $2.2 million for former football coach Glen Mason. But the cost of firing Pitino has ballooned far beyond those figures, thanks to Teague’s offer.
“If I was the athletic director, I probably would not have had that kind of buyout provision — I’m more performance-based in the contracts,” Johnson said. “But the person who signed that is no longer with us, so that’s water over the dam.”
If Pitino is fired, the $7 million would be paid in monthly installments until his contract expires in 2021 — with some conditions. Pitino must make “reasonable and diligent efforts” to find “comparable employment.” The payments would end if Pitino secures a such a role; the contract lists as examples another Division I head coaching position, an NBA assistant coaching job or a TV analyst role.
Out of his control?
In the eyes of Richard Hurt, father of recruit Michael, Pitino’s credibility has only grown as a result of the latest suspensions.
“The fact that he took the actions he did — it showed they’re taking it seriously,” he said. “You could say there have been some character issues, but I believe in what Coach Pitino is trying to do and who he’s trying to do it with. … I’m not going to back away from that, and neither is Michael.”
Fellow recruit Eric Curry said he and Amir Coffey looked at the mishaps — and the punishments — as a warning sign.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “When we get up there, we know we just have to stay focused, don’t get in trouble, don’t make mistakes. Because we know it’s bigger than us — we’re representing that whole university.”
Former Gopher Damien Johnson, who pays close attention to the program and stays in touch with other former players who talk with the current team regularly, said he doesn’t support such behavior but noted that these embarrassing blunders are common in collegiate sports.
“I don’t think this reflects on the coach,” Johnson said. “[Duke] coach [Mike Krzyzewski] had to dismiss [current Maryland guard] Rasheed Sulaimon for an incident, and Coach K is one of the most highly regarded coaches in all of sports. You can’t control every individual.
“Some guys are going to have red flags, but there are some guys coming into college with spotless records and they end up doing things that you never would have guessed in 1,000 years.”
Johnson said he and his teammates had more than a few of those moments themselves — incidents that never leaked to the media — despite what he described as rigid rules.
“Tubby Smith ran a pretty tight-knit culture, where if you got in trouble, you knew it could be the end of you,” he said. “We were afraid of that, but things still happened.
“[Pitino] is not just bringing in criminals or anything. ... From what I hear, most guys think he’s a pretty good disciplinarian. Guys aren’t just running loose — it’s not just a jungle out there.”
An unscientific startribune.com poll asking readers whether Pitino, 51-50 overall and 16-38 in the Big Ten, deserved a chance to turn around the program was nearly split as of 11 a.m. Sunday: 51 percent said yes, 49 percent said no.
First-year ticket-holder Rob Lubenow is in the first camp.
“I’m not in the position where you fire a coach every two years,” he said. ”Give a guy a chance. Three years is a lot of time, but at least two or three more years to see what he does.”