Say this for Norwood Teague and his Villa 7 cohorts: They got a big name.
Just not the one everyone knows.
Teague concluded his search for a new Gophers basketball coach by hiring one of the most recognizable names in college basketball. He hired a Pitino.
Not Rick Pitino, of course. No, his son, Richard, a 30-year-old coach at Florida International who apparently has a reputation as a top up-and-comer in the coaching profession.
It’s an intriguing hire, one that carries a high risk-reward. This is the type of hire we should have predicted all along.
Every coaching search starts with grand illusions, or delusions. Fans and media toss out pie-in-the-sky scenarios that make little sense to anyone without ties to that particular school. I mean, why wouldn’t Tony Dungy want to coach the Gophers football team? He did play here, after all.
Then reality sets in and expectations for the search take on a more honest tone. People fell into that same trap again with this search, myself included.
We looked at Teague’s basketball background and his success with his Villa 7 program and just assumed he could attract a high-level, established coach to replace Tubby Smith. We knew Teague had connections to Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens and Buzz Williams and figured the Gophers’ new ambitious athletic director had a fighting chance to reel in a big fish.
How many coaching searches actually end with a school hiring its dream coach or first choice? That happens at only a select few places, and Minnesota is not one of them.
Ultimately, the Gophers job simply has too many obstacles and drawbacks to be considered an attractive job to established head coaches. The Barn is antiquated, a practice facility remains in concept stage, and the program has a checkered past. At best, Minnesota is the eighth-best job in the Big Ten right now.
That doesn’t mean Teague was wrong in trying to hit a home run. He desperately wants to elevate his basketball program’s stature so he had to see if he could convince a power coach to take the job. No harm in that. He probably didn’t expect to get so far down his list, though.
Many Gophers fans clung to their sentimental pick, Flip Saunders, who reportedly turned down an offer. Whatever caused those negotiations to fall apart, it seems fairly obvious that Teague and his right-hand man, Mike Ellis, kept a prescribed coaching profile in mind and Saunders did not fit that criteria.
That’s their prerogative, but it also could end up being a major mistake if Pitino fails miserably. Teague’s tenure and legacy are forever tied to his hire because athletic directors usually don’t get many opportunities to make decisions of this magnitude.
No matter what they say publicly, the young Pitino wasn’t their first choice, or second choice, or third. Or even their fourth or fifth. That doesn’t automatically make him a bad choice. He just brings more unknowns.
As far as we know, Pitino is not a Villa 7 alum, but he has something that’s probably equally attractive to Teague: He’s a product of Villa Pitino.
The son worked for his legendary dad at Louisville and served on Billy Donovan’s staff at Florida. He’s learned under two of the best coaching minds in college basketball. That doesn’t guarantee he’ll be successful as Gophers coach, of course, but maybe he’ll become Teague’s next Shaka Smart.
Teague turned to the same source in finding his new coach. VCU hired Anthony Grant and then Smart off Donovan’s staff at Florida. Donovan gave those two coaches glowing recommendations at the time, and it’s a safe bet he did the same thing when Teague came calling again.
Pitino is young and energetic and has good contacts, which should help in recruiting. He’s been a head coach only one season, which produced surprising success as he cleaned up the mess that Isiah Thomas left him at FIU.
But make no mistake, this is a risky hire. Pitino is young and largely unproven as a head coach. The Big Ten is filled with elite coaches and powerhouse programs. This is an enormous leap for him.
It’s impossible to predict how Pitino will handle this challenge, but Teague’s decision to fire Smith was still the right call. That opinion hasn’t changed. The end result was not what we expected nine days ago, though.
Teague couldn’t pull off a splash hire. Instead, he made an intriguing hire with a famous last name.