Even when Richard Pitino was a young man in 1997 watching his dad’s Kentucky team beat Clem Haskins’ Gophers in the Final Four, the new Gophers coach saw a program he knew could be great.
“I think of it as business. This is like my eighth time moving since 2005,” recalled Richard Pitino, nearly two months into his new job. “I told my wife when we were at FIU, she said, ‘Where are you going to go next?’ I said, ‘You’re never going to guess it. You’ll never be able to guess.’
“When Minnesota approached me I knew, when Minnesota played Kentucky in ’97, I was at that game and they were really good, and I saw the fan base. I know about the city just from when I was coming here. When there was ever a chance to do it [come to Minnesota] I jumped at it pretty quick.”
What impressed him about the Gophers basketball program?
“Well I just had a little familiarity because of it,” he said. “They were physical. And I would watch Minnesota because of Tubby [Smith], when they were on TV. I always saw the Barn was packed, so I knew if you get an opportunity to do that, you have to do it.”
Yes, Pitino knew and admired Smith, who was on his father’s Kentucky staff from 1989 to 1991 and then took over the Wildcats program after Rick Pitino left for the Boston Celtics.
Asked if there were other reasons why the Gophers job was attractive, Pitino didn’t hesitate to point out the positives of selling the program.
“I think this place is unique. It’s different than any place I’ve ever been, because it’s the only Division I school in the state,” he said. “I think people grow up, living in Minnesota, dreaming of going to this university. That’s very unique. To have a whole state supporting you is something special.”
Pitino also said the players have been really receptive when he has talked to them.
“I think we have a lot to sell here,” he said. “We have a great university, a great fan base, the best conference in college basketball with a lucrative TV deal, we have a fun style of play. We have a lot to sell. Everybody has received us well. We’re late in the game, so we just have to work a little harder.”
Pitino and his coaching staff have been able to work out the players a few times, but he said on that limited basis, it’s difficult to say who is best fitted for his style of play because the workouts were simply based on skill development.
“It wasn’t competitive. It wasn’t 5-on-5. It’s hard to tell how good they’re going to be right now because until you put guys in 5-on-5 situations — certain guys look good in workouts where other guys don’t,” Pitino said. “So it’s kind of hard to really speculate that right now. I’ll have a better feel when we can start playing 5-on-5.”
Pitino has also asked a number of players to work on their weight and conditioning, by either adding pounds or shedding them.
“[Mo Walker] has already lost 20 pounds. Charles Buggs has already put on about 15 pounds. Those guys are committed to getting their body right,” Pitino said. “Elliott Eliason was doing really well. He’s over in Italy right now studying abroad. They’re all committed, they’ve all been great. It’s just a matter of our frontcourt more than our backcourt getting in shape.”
Tops in academics
In the three years since Lynn Holleran, the director of the McNamara Athletic Center for student-athletes, has been on the job, there has been improvement in men’s and women’s grades throughout the Gophers athletic department.
Yes, Jerry Kill and his football coaching staff can take some credit in that for the third time in four semesters, the football team has posted a grade-point average above 3.0.
Some others who should be taking a bow include the football academic advisers Jacki Lienesch and Shea’na Grigsby.