Souhan: Pitino could be best Gophers' hire in a decade

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2013 - 8:13 AM
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Richard Pitino is just the sort of young coach who was likely to be hired by the Gophers’ new athletic director.

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON • brianp@startribune.com ,

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Barring the nagging aberration that is Tim Brewster, Richard Pitino might own the shortest résumé of any coach hired to run a revenue sport at the University of Minnesota since John Gutekunst stuck around to clean up Lou Holtz’s spittle-caked confetti.

Yet given the apathy and low expectations coating the Gophers basketball program like inch-thick dust, it would not be surprising if Pitino became the athletic department’s best hire in a decade or two.

What frightens many alumni is that Pitino, a 30-year-old who has worked as a head coach for only one season, lacks experience. Given the state of the program and the unwillingness of proven coaches to take the Minnesota basketball job, Pitino might prove ideal: young and ambitious enough to treat Williams Arena as the promised land rather than a retirement home or unguarded ATM.

Norwood Teague couldn’t hire Shaka Smart, so he hired the guy who might become the next Shaka Smart.

Think of it this way: If Pitino becomes the head coach that Teague envisions, this spring might have been the only chance Minnesota ever would have to hire him. By next year, he might have hit the “ignore’’ button on his smartphone every time he saw a phone call from the 612 area code.

Whether or not you approve of Pitino, the hiring of Teague as athletic director dictated the hiring of someone like Pitino as head coach.

You don’t hire Teague, a pursuer and nurturer of young head coaches and assistants, and then ask or expect him to hire someone like Tubby Smith or Flip Saunders — somebody who used to be somebody.

You hire Teague because you believe he can identify the next power coach, and because you believe he and his hand-picked coach can build the Gophers basketball program into a sustainable winner. Teague and Pitino will be linked because they need each other to succeed.

If the University of Minnesota wanted the next Gophers coach to be Saunders, it need not have hired Teague. Any alum could have made that hire. If Teague hadn’t plumbed his contacts in search of the next big thing, he should have forfeited a year’s salary.

Under more ideal circumstances, Minnesota would have hired someone like Smart or Buzz Williams, but the Gophers basketball program hasn’t experienced ideal circumstances since the NCAA caught up with Bill Musselman.

The Gophers basketball job is a midlevel Big Ten position. It offers the opportunity to play for one of the Big Ten’s last NCAA at-large berths every winter. It lacks a practice facility and competes with four big-league sports for attention.

Minnesota can become a good job again, but the refurbishment will require the kind of energy and optimism usually associated with youth and perhaps even a constructive form of naiveté.

Teague said Friday that he wanted a coach who would be “a maniac’’ in recruiting. If testimonials from Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan and others are accurate, Richard Pitino is a driven worker who knows the landscape. His success at Florida International demonstrates coaching chops, taking a program that Isiah Thomas turned into a smoking crater and winning 18 games in his first season.

Those who have criticized the hiring of Pitino cite the risk of hiring someone so young and inexperienced, but every coaching hire involves risk. The risk with Tubby Smith was that he would look at Minnesota as a golden-parachute job where he would not be burdened by high expectations. His national title didn’t make him the right coach for Minnesota.

Pitino will bring energy and an attractive style of play to a program that has become known for timid coaching and player regression.

Richard Pitino doesn’t seem to have gained enough experience to know that Minnesota has been a mediocre job since we learned the name Jan Gangelhoff, or that the current athletic department culture promotes avoidance of challenges. He’s unspoiled enough to see upside and opportunity.

If Pitino can coach, and it appears that he can, his unwillingness to place a governor on expectations might become his most attractive trait.

 

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