Richard Pitino wants to see his Gophers basketball team back on campus just to be around his players again more than anything. But the issue of safety is the most important step before their return.

The NCAA voted last week to allow athletic activities on campuses starting Monday. 


The University of Minnesota hasn't announced when its athletes are returning, but the NCAA released Friday a plan from its medical experts that would help sports teams return to campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, Pitino shared his thoughts on his players being allowed back possibly soon, how college basketball might look different when it returns to competition next season and more.

He was joined during a Strib Live virtual town hall by Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey and Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve.

Q: The Gophers haven't said when athletes will be allowed back on campus in June, but what concerns do you have when your players return?

A: I think the biggest thing is we’ve got Marcus Carr is in Canada. That’s over the border, so what does that mean for him? Or what does that mean for my [kids] from Texas in Tre’ Williams and [Sam Freeman]. I know the most important thing is the safety part of it. Making sure the families, the kids, the student-athletes feel really, really good about us bring them back. Making sure that model is right. As crazy as it sounds, I’m always itching to get back with our guys. I am, but let’s make sure we are turning everything over in case something does happen that we have all those [things in place]. I told [Gophers athletics director] Mark Coyle, I used to think your job is easy and my job is hard. I told him the other day, ‘We’ve got it reversed now. You may actually have the harder job.’

A lot of schools, football more than basketball because we have a little bit more time. But they are concerned about a level playing field in this all. Some guys are coming back earlier than others.

I’m not necessarily as concerned as that as I am if we’re putting student-athletes in the dorm. And we remember when we were in college we weren’t necessarily as sound a mind as we are now. Making sure they’re smart. Those are the biggest concerns I have. But it seems to be moving towards that way.

As coach I want to be around my guys. We don’t have contracts that lock these guys in. When they go home there’s people picking at them. Telling them maybe you should transfer, maybe you should do this. When we have them on our campus that’s when everything calms down a little bit.

Just the safety of them. How can we do things the right way? How can we get them on a plane the right way? Educating them to make sure their family and everyone feels really, really good about it.

Q: Are there any lasting impacts of the pandemic that when it feels fairly normal that we might keep for the better?

A: There was a study a couple years ago in the NBA that teams that touched with a fist bump, a handshake, or a butt slap or whatever those teams won more. That was something we would read to our team all of the time. There are things we do that seem somewhat silly. But we’d bring everyone in at the end of practice and just say get a touch. Just touch somebody. That’s probably going to change. Something the pros don’t do as much as college, but we always do at the end of the game handshake line. I never really loved it, because sometimes emotions get hot. I could see that going away. I never really liked to shake the ref’s hands before games, but we have to do that. Maybe that will go away.

The ability to communicate whether it is with a recruit for us or our staff on these zooms. I think that’s a good thing out of it. If something good comes out of it, I think we’ve figured out how to operate where [we don’t have to be there all the time] with young kids. Sometimes you just want to do it from home.

Q: You’re keeping track of your players’ workouts and fitness, but are you concerned about rushing back and having potential injuries?

A: I’ve got Eric Curry on my team. He’s had all types of injuries and I’ve been Face Timing with him “don’t be doing too much.” Let’s make sure you’re not overzealous when you’re going out for a run and you push it too much. Because the athlete’s bodies and their minds are the most important things in anything we do. I constantly remind Mark Coyle this is not conducive to building a championship program. Reminding you of this. It’s just so different. My concern, and I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining, but it could get disruptive. You could have a couple of good weeks of practice. Momentum is so important in sports. All of a sudden you win a couple of games in a row and it changes your whole team. Whenever we’re told ‘let’s go.’ To get our guys in the mindset of we’re going. They’re probably going to show up and say, ‘Well, is this going to get disruptive or does this really matter?’ There are so many variables that are really, really challenging to running a program in any phase. But for sure their bodies if they’re rehabbing and the way we’ve done practice before, I’m telling myself let’s not go crazy when they come back to campus. Just to make myself feel better. I’m just like let’s make sure we’re easing into this thing and not go crazy when they get back.

Q: How seriously are your players taking the virus crisis?
 I believe in this internet world they’re more educated now than I was in college. They understand the severity of this. They understand they can play a part in helping this. Maybe it’s not them but a grandfather, mother or father or something like that. So, I do think we always complain about the internet and social media, but I do think they are pretty educated about how serious this thing is right now. I’m hopeful they are.

Q: How do you imagine it will be like to play without fans in the crowd? 
A: I was worried when we were going to the conference tournament we had just beaten Northwestern and we were going to play Iowa. There was that dynamic in the Big Ten tournament that we're going to play but not with fans. Fans matter. The emotion of whether you're home or you're away. There are certain venues where we play that might not be filled where we would prefer even on the road that they're filled. We want that. So, that's a new dimension for everybody that we're going to have to deal with. Because it's going to have to be solely about the basketball. The hoopla of the intro video and getting the fans going that matters. So, for me as a coach I'm going to make sure if I have bad language I'm going to keep it quiet. We do these preseason scrimmages, these secret scrimmages we can do where we do it versus some high-major opponents. It's always really weird. The players on the bench get up and cheer even when it seems very weird. So, I think it's going to greatly impact ... we're not going to have home court advantage I would assume, but neither is Michigan State and Indiana. 

Q: What do you think about fake crowd noise or music playing at a game with no fans?

A: Anything we can do to look better on TV is beneficial. I think Cheryl has been talked about it like I have that 'Hey, are you willing to be mic'd up and those things in your huddles?' You can't say no right now. You have to get people to turn on the TV and watch. I have preliminarily been asked would you care about music and stuff? I really wouldn't. You watch those golf events. The Phil and Tiger one was received well, but the Rory and Ricky one down in Florida still seemed a little weird to me. It seemed like it was missing something. So, we need to figure out quickly whenever this does resume how can we attach to whomever it is turning it on to be engaged. It's going to feel different. I think crowd noise of some sort really does matter.