Richard Pitino landed the biggest recruit of his tenure as Gophers men’s basketball coach when nationally lauded Hopkins guard Amir Coffey announced Monday he would be attending his home-state school.
Coffey, the Gophers’ top target and one of the country’s best in the 2016 class, took all of 15 seconds to deliver the news, flipping a maroon hat out of a plastic bag and pulling it over his head shortly after sitting down in front of a packed meeting room at Hopkins High School.
“I want to be one of the first to stay home and play for my hometown,” he said. “I’m excited to be a Gopher.”
Afterward, his mother, Sheba Coffey, laughed. “If he could have gotten it over in five seconds, he would have been happy,” she said. “I think the cameras made him a little nervous, but I have a sneaking suspicion he had better get used to it, because he does pretty well.”
Coffey, a 6-7 guard with a unique mix of size and skill, chose the Gophers over offers from Arizona, Baylor, Texas and four Big Ten schools: Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan State and Indiana. The decision wasn’t a huge surprise after he canceled a scheduled visit to Texas this past weekend. His only official visit was to the U, hanging out on the field at TCF Bank Stadium Sept. 3 before the Gophers football team’s season opener against TCU.
Coffey dominated in his junior season at Hopkins before suffering an injury to his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He returned from his knee rehabilitation to participate in the Pacesetter Sweet Sixteen Basketball Championship in St. Cloud in August, averaging more than 25 points in four games.
Sitting at a plain table Monday with white schoolroom walls behind him, he thanked the gathering of friends, family and media for coming. After Coffey quickly relieved the suspense — which sparked a loud applause from his friends and family — he took a few questions before father, Richard Coffey raised a fist and shouted “Go Gophers!”
The elder Coffey played for the Gophers from 1986 to ’90 and also briefly for the Timberwolves. He said he worked hard to contain his excitement throughout the recruiting process.
“I never wanted to push Minnesota toward him, almost to a fault,” Richard said. “Deep inside, I wouldn’t let myself get excited about the possibility, because I didn’t want to get let down.”
But the son followed in his path, anyway.
“It’s pretty cool that I’ll be going to the same school that my dad did,” Amir said. “But when I get there, I want to start making my own legacy. I don’t want to be Richard Coffey’s son; I want to be Amir Coffey.”
Win for Pitino
The class of 2014, Pitino’s first recruiting class, boasted three top-50 players in Minnesota: current Timberwolves rookie Tyus Jones (Duke), Milwaukee Bucks draftee Rashad Vaughn (UNLV) and Stanford’s Reid Travis. The Gophers went 0-for-3.
“Just based on Coffey’s skill and his national ranking, obviously it’s huge for Minnesota’s momentum,” ESPN analyst Jeff Borzello said. “But I also think it’s big that in back-to-back years, they’ve secured the best player in Minnesota.”
Pitino got a commitment from the state’s top recruit last year, DeLaSalle’s Jarvis Johnson, although the guard was not cleared to play this coming season due to a heart condition. Coffey joins 2016 Rochester John Marshall wing Michael Hurt, who committed in January.
“I think the image is getting way better and more appealing to guys back home [in Minnesota],” Coffey said. “They are definitely starting to get a momentum.
“The talent in Minnesota is amazing. If the Gophers do take advantage of it, we could be a great team. There are a lot of good players here, and hopefully they commit to the Gophers.”
Coffey’s decision to stay home provides a valuable nod to the future, key for a young program that could face a second consecutive season of growing pains.
“I think he will bring back some of the fans who have strayed over the years through the struggles,” said Ronnie Laitinen, a 40-plus-year season-ticket holder from St. Louis Park who first watched Richard Coffey play for Clem Haskins. “He’s so talented, and so many people have followed him.”
Amir Coffey can play at the wing, point and shooting guard spots and has been lauded for his stellar court vision and ability to involve teammates. He also brings length to the two guard position, which has traditionally been undersized at the U. He said Monday that Pitino was excited when he told him the news, and that assistant coach Ben Johnson started screaming in the background.
“He has a lot to learn,” Richard Coffey said later. “He has a lot of development to do. By no means is he a savior of anything. But I think he can be an important piece of their success moving forward.”