Richard Pitino’s Gophers men’s basketball program is in a months-long skid, on and off the court, that has called into question his future in Minnesota. His team won just eight games in 2015-16, a season that ended with controversy after he suspended three players for their role in a graphic video posted on social media and kicked senior Carlos Morris off the team.
Just in the past week, transfer Reggie Lynch was arrested and held in jail on probable cause for criminal sexual misconduct. He was released after not being charged, though the investigation is ongoing and he could still be charged at a later date. Then the Star Tribune reported that Pitino had exceeded his budget on private air travel. And on Wednesday, University President Eric Kaler specifically called out Pitino’s program in opening remarks while introducing new athletic director Mark Coyle at a news conference.
Pitino, typically not one to grant extra interview requests, has been making the media rounds since then — speaking with the Pioneer Press, 1500-AM radio and the Star Tribune. I caught up with Pitino on Thursday morning, less than an hour before his first scheduled meeting with Coyle.
Q Are you feeling any lack of administrative support based on comments in the excess travel story and President Kaler’s opening remarks Wednesday?
A Yeah, I think that once Mark is here it will be a much more stable situation. It’s always tough when you’re going through stuff and you don’t have an AD. Beth (Goetz) did an amazing job for the year she was here, but she was obviously an interim AD. I think it will be great to have someone in place. I’d love to sit down and talk with him, like we’re going to do today, and talk about my vision — and come clean about some areas where I’ve made some mistakes. We lost a lot of games and we had a couple of guys get in trouble, obviously. When that happens, you’re going to get criticized. I deserve that. I accept that and own that. It’s my responsibility to fix this. Nobody else’s.
Q I guess the larger question is do you feel like the University is building a case right now to try to get rid of you?
A I certainly hope not. I want to be here for a long time, and I look at our team. I look at what we’ve got coming back. We were pretty close against some very good opponents last year. Sometimes you have to lose to learn how to win. I think those guys did that, and I’m going to grow from that as well — along with a recruiting class. So I hope they want me to stay and hope they believe in me because I believe in what we’re doing and I believe we will turn it around.
Q You can’t hold players’ hands 24-7, but overall, philosophically, where do you come down on how much you are able to influence them and how much should come back your way if things happen off the court?
A From the second you recruit guys, with your evaluation of them as people as well as basketball players, you’re always trying to identify guys you believe will represent your basketball team and your university in the right way. You’re not always going to be perfect. There are a lot of things you can anticipate and get to before they happen, and there are some things you can’t. But the one thing I will say is I’m held accountable and that’s the way it should be. That’s never going to change, and I’m very comfortable with that. It’s my responsibility to not only win games but ensure these guys are acting the right way in the community and in the classroom. That’s what I signed up for.
Q If you lost eight games last year instead of winning eight games last year, do you think the airplane story comes out — the larger question being how much of the off-court negativity is influenced by on-court negativity?
A That’s hard for me to say. I just know this: we need to start getting people to start talking positively about us. The only way to do that is to act the right way and to win games. This is a win-loss business. The state of Minnesota wants a team they can be proud of. … Anytime you lose, that comes with the territory, and that’s OK.
Q A lot is made about your $7 million contract buyout. Does it make you uncomfortable when money discussions are thrown around casually and that your buyout is a topic on the table?
A Yeah, it does. I’m not going to lie. I hate when I’m identified with money because you don’t want to be looked at like that. But it’s part of the business. What I have to do is make people proud that I’m the men’s basketball coach here. And the way we can do that is to get people to appreciate what we’re doing. And we haven’t done that. If you don’t, people are going to question whether you know how to coach a team or run a program. People are going to question if you’re paid too much money. That comes with it. You just do your best to keep your head down and work. But the bottom line is I need to change all this stuff.
Q I want to circle back to the story on the plane travel. To make it clear: You say that all of the excess spending was approved by the athletic department and you considered it reasonable spending even if it exceeded what was written in your contract based on trying to move the program forward?
A Yeah, so here’s what happened: I would go to Norwood (Teague) and say, “I understand what’s in my contract. Are there other ways to do this within the rules, doing it the right way?”
Q And what were those ways — did boosters kick in money?
A I have to be honest, I don’t really know. I just ran it by them, and they approved it. A lot of times things are approved and a lot of times things are not approved, but we are very mindful of our spending. I have no problem with being called a bad coach or told I don’t know what I’m doing, but in that regard we felt like in that regard we ran everything by our superiors and they had the right to say no or yes. They did that. I will say, allegedly, that we neglected to fill some gas tanks, and we can’t do that.
Q Were most of the additional flights recruiting-based, or how would you characterize them?
A They were all recruiting-based. That’s why all this stuff was approved. We don’t do it too often, but maybe one of the benefits is in July you find a way to be at a game in the morning in Texas and get to a couple of AAU games in Indiana later. Everything that we do, we do with the best interests of the university and the best interests of the basketball program in mind because we think it will help us compete. Every dollar that is spent has to be approved, and that’s how it should be.
Q The report said a couple of the flights were under 200 miles and therefore “unallowable.” Do you remember what those were?
A Truthfully, I don’t. I don’t know what that’s about. I don’t remember ever doing that, so I’m not sure.
Q You said on the radio that next year’s team will be your deepest team. Deeper than the team that won the NIT?
A Yeah, I mean I look at when we won the NIT, we brought in DeAndre Mathieu and I didn’t know what I was going to get. We brought in Joey King and I didn’t know what we were going to get. Mo Walker had to lose all that weight. So there were a lot of unknowns. … I feel like there are more battle-tested guys (going into next year).