Mark Coyle took his usual spot in Williams Arena on Saturday afternoon. Directly behind the Gophers bench, about 15 rows up.
The Gophers athletic director was surrounded by empty seats, providing vivid imagery that gets to the heart of a decision that he will make at some point in the next week.
A coaching change in men's basketball is inevitable because standing pat would be bad for business, and Coyle knows that. When a fan base turns on a coach to the degree that Gophers fans have with Richard Pitino, the decision on how to proceed is obvious.
Pitino's $1.75 million buyout is a pittance compared to the financial hit the athletic department would suffer from canceled season tickets and fan disgruntlement if nothing happens.
Part of Coyle's reasoning in firing football coach Tracy Claeys in 2017 stemmed from witnessing a half-filled stadium on game day. Coyle felt apathy taking root and determined that he needed to "shake the tree." He won't speak publicly about Pitino's status until after the Big Ten Tournament, but Coyle finds himself in that same space, needing to shake the tree. After eight seasons, it's just time.
That's an unfortunate conclusion on a personal level. Pitino is accessible, funny, self-deprecating and insightful when evaluating his team. He is someone you'd like to have a beer with.
But being a nice guy doesn't mitigate the bottom line of his profession. Pitino is paid handsomely to win, and he simply has not won enough to warrant a ninth season.
The Gophers concluded their regular season with a 77-70 overtime loss to Rutgers, their seventh loss in a row. They finish with a 6-14 conference record.
In dissecting Pitino's tenure, it's fair to acknowledge that his teams have encountered some crummy luck with injuries that either altered or helped sabotage seasons. This season included. But injuries can't be used as a life preserver after eight years.
Pitino's time in Dinkytown reflects several truths: bad luck, bad recruiting, not enough player development and too much instability.
The recruiting piece flashes brightest with fans who agonize every time a five-star recruit leaves the state. A dose of perspective is required there.
Those highest of high-level recruits — Tyus Jones, Matthew Hurt, Jalen Suggs — are not turning down Duke, Gonzaga or other blue bloods to stay home and play for the Gophers. Sorry, not happening. Not until the Gophers establish sustained excellence over a long period of time.
Pitino's problem is that his recruiting misses in that next tier of talent are becoming too common, which creates terrible optics. Taking Isaiah Washington over Champlin Park's McKinley Wright IV was a major miscalculation that will define Pitino's tenure. Losing to Marquette in a battle for Prior Lake's Dawson Garcia was another indictment.
The roster need not be filled with all Minnesotans, but a stronger relationship between the Gophers coach and the state's high school coaches and recruits is vital.
Recruiting mistakes became more glaring when injuries hit and roster depth got tested. Their overall talent was never enough to achieve consistency or sustain momentum.
A lack of competent shooting proved to be the Achilles' heel of Pitino's program. Three-point shooting has never been more prevalent or important at all levels of basketball. The Gophers lag tremendously in that area. Only once in Pitino's eight seasons has his team finished in the top 100 nationally in overall field-goal percentage and three-point shooting percentage. The Gophers routinely rank between 200 and 300 among all Division I teams in shooting.
The Gophers ranked 22nd nationally in three-point attempts this season and 331st in three-point accuracy. There is no justification for that imbalance and lack of awareness of their fundamental weakness.
Players and coaches walked slowly off the court Saturday after another loss. Their body language showed dejection. It's still hard to believe this season included double-digit wins over Michigan and Ohio State.
As has happened too often under Pitino, the Gophers couldn't sustain it. They crumbled down the stretch, yes, in part because of injuries, but that excuse only goes so far this deep into a coach's tenure.
Losing comes with a price, and Coyle's next step offers no mystery.