I’m sitting in the press box at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla. If it wasn’t for the trees, I might be able to get a glimpse a few miles away of Florida Gulf Coast University’s modern, growing campus.
This was the school where a desperate Norwood Teague, as Minnesota athletic director, took his final shot to hire a men’s basketball coach that could be branded as a coup for the Gophers.
Teague and his basketball man, Mike Ellis, had fired Tubby Smith after the 2012-13 season in which the Tubster won his first NCAA tournament game at Minnesota.
Teague and Ellis promptly went through their wish list for a Tubby replacement without getting a “yes.” Then, Andy Enfield emerged as coup material when he led upstart Florida Gulf Coast to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Eagles were bounced March 29, and Teague was in Florida quickly, trying to hire him. Norwood was soon informed that Enfield planned to take another offer — Southern California’s — and that put the AD and Ellis at wit’s end.
A call was placed to Florida coach Billy Donovan.
“Who do you have for us, Billy?” Teague is alleged to have asked.
Donovan suggested the Gophers try Richard Pitino, a former assistant for him at Florida. Within a couple of days, Teague had a deal with young Richard.
Enfield was taking over a Southern Cal program that was 14-18 and with an RPI of No. 119 in 2012-13. His first two seasons with the Trojans were lousy and it looked as if Enfield might be another false creation of an unexpected tournament run.
Pitino was taking over a Gophers program that was 21-13 and with an RPI of No. 30 in 2012-13. His first team had NCAA potential, missed, and then won the NIT. His second team missed both the NCAA and the NIT.
It is now Year 3. This isn’t football, where the process of building something takes a handful of years. This is basketball, where a coach should have a strong imprint on his team by his third season.
USC went into this weekend at 18-5 and with an RPI of No. 18. That is a 101-place improvement over what Enfield inherited April 2, 2013.
The Gophers go into Sunday night’s game at Iowa with a 6-18 record, a 13-game losing streak and an RPI of No. 238. That is a 208-place decline from what Pitino inherited on April 4, 2013.
Tubby’s last team put up its 21-13 record against a schedule ranked as the fifth-most difficult in Division I basketball. Pitino’s third team has put up its 6-18 record against a schedule currently ranked as the 61st-most difficult.
The Gophers were the first champions of what’s now the Big Ten Conference in 1906. One hundred and 10 years later, they are 0-12 in the Big Ten for the first time.
They have a minimum of seven games remaining. If they lose five of those, the 2015-16 Gophers will have lost more games on the scoreboard than any team since men’s basketball started at the U in 1896.
This team is a disgrace, and almost as disgraceful is the rose-colored view of things that has been offered by interested parties — namely, Pitino’s superiors, the more zealous fans and the local sports media as a whole.
“We all expected this,” the kind-hearted say.
Really? All of us.
“We have a lot of pieces in play,” Pitino said at the start of practice. “I think we’ve got a chance to be a very good team.”
Now Richard tells us he knew all along that Year 3 would be bad, so he was either lying last fall, or he started lying when the losses mounted.
When the Maroon and Gold scrimmage was held at Williams Arena, a miked-up Pitino shouted to the witnesses: “We will not use youth as an excuse!”
Pitino hasn’t stopped using youth as an excuse since … handing out great big spoons full of that after losses and undoubtedly snickering to himself as we slurp the pablum.
When the Gophers held off vaunted Louisiana-Monroe early in the season, Pitino said: “When it was time to respond, we responded well. We would have never done that last year. … Certainly, it’s very, very early, but I liked what I saw.”
And when the Gophers lost to Oklahoma State 62-60 in Sioux Falls on Dec. 12, Pitino said: “We’re going to be a good team. I don’t know when that’s going to be, hopefully sooner than later, but we’re going to be good team if we compete the way we did tonight.”
Two months later, what Pitino has offered is the basketball equivalent of Joe Salem’s 1983 football disaster, and still we pablum-slurpers are saying:
“Don’t worry about it. The Gophers will be quite a bit better next season.”
Quite a bit better than the worst in 110 years? Now that excites the bejeebers out of me.