Richard Pitino came off as an accessible leader of a Big Ten men’s basketball program from the time he was hired in April 2013 through his first season at the University of Minnesota.
Then, the Gophers won the NIT title and Pitino must have figured this made him a star for something other than his last name.
I didn’t care one way or the other, but reporters covering him on a regular basis found Pitino difficult to reach other than for routine access — the day before games and for 10 minutes after a game.
That has all changed. It changed after the first minute of University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler’s introduction of Mark Coyle as the new athletic director Wednesday.
This was supposed to be a celebration of the university’s ability to hire an athletic director with a strong background in big-time athletics. Yes, most of that experience came at Boise State, but that is big-time football, in profile if not in conference affiliation.
Considering this public relations bonanza for Kaler, it was astounding to have the university president call out Pitino’s basketball program early in his remarks. He called out recent events and said he was “profoundly disappointed” in men’s basketball, and did so with as close to a sneer as you’ll get from a high-toned academician.
Since Kaler’s broadside Wednesday, Pitino has been soliciting interviews rather than avoiding them. Pitino the younger has been in the media more than Red McCombs when he was the new owner of the Vikings, running through the streets shouting “Purple Pride.”
There are many negatives about Pitino the younger, but one of them does not include being stupid. You don’t grow up in a home with Rick Pitino without understanding that when challenged, you go on the attack — that you take responsibility for any problems while not really taking responsibility.
I was first in the presence of Rick Pitino when he took Providence to the Final Four in 1987. I thought he was the slickest coach I’d ever observed. Then I spent a few days around John Calipari at UMass and Pitino the elder fell to second place, where he remains.
Rick Pitino remains so strong with doublespeak that he convinced outstanding, veteran sportswriters that I know — gents with a nose for bull slinging — that he knew nothing about a graduate assistant running hookers through the basketball dorm at Louisville.
The secret in spinning this claptrap is that you take full responsibility for the program, say something such as, “It all falls on me,” and then you add, “I didn’t know what was going on.”
It would be convenient to use the bromide “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” in the case of the Pitinos, but here’s the problem:
Rick Pitino is among the top three college basketball coaches over the past 30 years. He’s tremendous tactically.
Richard Pitino has been an impostor as a Big Ten coach. You see him on the elevated court of Williams Arena and he’s a kid acting how he thinks a big-time coach should act, rather than actually coaching.
The Gophers finished the 2012-13 season at No. 30 in the Ratings Percentage Index. Athletic director Norwood Teague responded by firing Tubby Smith. Three years of building by Pitino have followed, and his 2015-16 Gophers finished No. 264 in RPI.
If being the overseer of the worst team in the 120 years of Gophers men’s basketball was Pitino’s major flaw … well, you couldn’t live with it, but at least you could avoid this:
Pulling out the few remaining hairs on your head every time he goes into the feeble imitation of his father and takes all responsibility without actually taking it.
As we learned this week on the front page of the Star Tribune, Pitino signed a contract that called for a $50,000 annual limit on private air travel. He exceeded that greatly, all with the approval of Teague and then his interim replacement, Beth Goetz.
The question was: Why would Pitino sign the contract if he knew the air travel figure was highly inadequate?
He answered that in a Thursday morning interview, saying he was assured by Teague that he could exceed that number. Later Thursday, Pitino told the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand that he didn’t know the source of the extra money that Teague provided for excess private air travel.
Doesn’t that give you a warm, tingly feeling about the principals involved in the contract?
Teague says, “Ah, don’t worry about that 50 grand limit,” and then Pitino adds, “OK, I don’t mind signing a contract with no intent to follow one of the clauses.”
Ethics of the highest order, I’d say.
And there is also this, to go with pathetic performance and disregard for the terms of the contract:
Pitino brought 17 players into the program as recruits and transfers in his first three seasons. Jarvis Johnson was ruled out by university doctors because of what they saw as a health risk.
Of the 16 remaining players, eight — meaning one-half — of Pitino’s recruits have either left the program, been tossed off the team or had significant suspensions:
Daquien McNeil, Josh Martin, Zach Lofton, Carlos Morris, Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer and now Reggie Lynch.
All in all, President Kaler, I’d say the men’s basketball program will have to improve considerably to reach the level of a profound disappointment.