Richard Pitino introduced himself to recruits on the phone before he met his new team or conducted his first news conference as Gophers basketball coach.
Smart move, Coach.
By the time Pitino stepped onto a stage inside Williams Arena on Friday morning, he already had begun the process of selling himself and his vision to this state’s crop of high-level recruits.
“Recruiting is the number one most important thing,” he said.
That message resonated loudest through all the pomp and circumstance of the young coach’s formal introduction. The only way this basketball program will rise above mediocrity is if Pitino can improve its overall talent level.
Yes, coaching matters, too. But talent trumps many things in sports, and the Gophers are deficient in that area right now, which could not have been more obvious than in their season-ending loss to Florida in the NCAA tournament. The difference in talent, speed and athleticism between those two teams was inarguable.
Without naming names, the Gophers roster this season included too many players who aren’t Big Ten-caliber. The blame for that falls on Tubby Smith, not on the players.
Much like his entire program and coaching style, Smith’s recruiting became uninspired and inconsistent. In reality, he had little chance of signing any of the Big Three of local high school standouts — Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis — and that worried school administrators.
Pitino might go 0-for-3 in that competition as well, but at least he’ll make things interesting. And it won’t be entirely surprising if he ultimately convinces one or two of the Big Three juniors to stay home.
“Our style of play is going to be fun to watch,” he said.
Pitino’s hiring carries an element of risk because he’s still largely unproven as a head coach and he’s entering a powerhouse conference filled with coaching sharks. But he can mitigate his growing pains by injecting the program with some blue-chip talent.
At the outset of his search, athletic director Norwood Teague cited three criteria he sought in a new coach. It wasn’t coincidence that he mentioned “relentless recruiter” first when discussing his preferred qualifications.
Give Teague credit for recognizing that recruiting also requires an institutional commitment. He inserted a clause in Pitino’s contract that provides him $50,000 annually to spend on private jets for recruiting purposes. That’s believed to be the first time the school has included such a stipulation in a coach’s contract.
Granted, that amount is probably a pittance compared with what some of his peers get, and it requires Pitino to pick his trips judiciously because renting private jets isn’t cheap (or so I’m told). But at least it’s a start and a sign that the Gophers understand what they’re competing against for top talent.
Pitino earned a reputation as a dogged recruiter as an assistant coach at Louisville and Florida. Teague described him as a maniac, which he meant as a compliment.
“I don’t know that you can ever measure how important recruiting is,” Teague said. “I was talking during the process to several coaches and somebody said, ‘You need a maniac.’ And the maniac part was in recruiting. It’s just work, work, work. That’s what we need. He’s got a lot of competition that he’s up against. But he’s got it in him.”
To be fair, recruiting at Minnesota presents different challenges than recruiting to Louisville and Florida. The Gophers have an old arena, no practice facility, no real history of sustained success and no significant national appeal. Gophers fans should feel optimistic about Pitino’s chances of attracting better talent to Dinkytown, however.
For starters, he seems to enjoy that aspect of coaching, his age (30) should enable him to relate to high school kids in a positive way and his last name is one of the most recognizable in college basketball, which might pique some recruits’ curiosity. Above all, his style of play will be attractive to recruits.
Pitino’s coaching philosophy was shaped by his Hall of Fame dad, Rick, and Florida coach Billy Donovan. The young Pitino wants his team to play fast and utilize full-court pressure to create turnovers and generate offense.
“I think kids like to play this style,” he said. “Almost every kid, for the most part, likes to get up and down the court because it’s fun. They like to play with freedom.”
That style requires the right kind of players and athletes, which might take a few recruiting cycles to achieve. Pitino knows he could go head-to-head against his dad in some of those turf wars.
“It’s game on, the way I look at it,” the son said. “Hopefully, he fights fair.”
He was joking, of course. But then again, recruiting is tough business. This young coach seems eager to jump into the fight.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org