Richard Pitino and Ryan Saunders are young head coaches running struggling teams. They are sons of prominent coaches. They are affable and analytical and have spent years courtside at Williams Arena — Pitino as a coach, Saunders as a fan and player.
They could not find themselves in situations more different.
Pitino has coached basketball at the University of Minnesota for longer than did Tubby Smith. Longer than Bill Musselman and Bill Fitch combined. Saunders has been a head coach for a little more than a year.
Pitino was hired at the age of 30, so he was three years younger when he got the job than Saunders was when he became the non-interim head coach of the Timberwolves.
At 37 and in his seventh season as Gophers men’s basketball coach, Pitino is an unusual combination of young and experienced. He also might be coaching for his job over the next two weeks.
If chatter inside both programs is to be believed, and I believe it in both cases, Pitino is in trouble and Saunders is not.
Pitino’s career head coaching winning percentage is .544. Saunders’ is .340.
So why would Saunders enjoy more job security? Because circumstances matter more than stats.
Pitino has made the NCAA tournament in two of the past three seasons, and he won a first-round game last year. He recruited Daniel Oturu, and helped Oturu become one of the best players in the country.
Despite those accomplishments, his tenure is suddenly trending in the wrong direction. His team has lost three consecutive, important home games by faltering in the final minutes. The Gophers are in 12th place in a 14-team conference. The Timberwolves rank 14th in a 15-team conference.
For all of their similarities, the differences between their job descriptions is telling.
Pitino picks his own players. Saunders does not.
When the Gophers struggled to inbound the ball or advance it past halfcourt in the waning minutes of their collapse against No. 9 Maryland on Wednesday, Pitino couldn’t blame his general manager for failing to sign another ballhandler. Pitino is in charge of his own recruiting, and his lack of point-guard depth may have destroyed the season.
Saunders, in contrast, was asked to coach a team featuring Andrew Wiggins even as new Wolves President Gersson Rosas was trying to trade Wiggins, for a team that has undergone a midseason roster transformation.
Pitino has had seven years to build a program. Saunders has evaded hard-eyed analysis because expectations for his team have been so low, and because he was hired with the understanding that he would have to grow into the role.
There is another major difference between their situations: Pitino is being compared with P.J. Fleck. Saunders is being compared with Tom Thibodeau.
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle hired Fleck and watched him energize boosters and alumni even when he was losing. The atmosphere before the Gophers’ losses at Williams Arena to Indiana and Maryland was almost depressing.
Unlike Fleck, Pitino has not energized the fan base or key alumni, nor has he been able to win over enough Minnesota recruits to establish a reliable pipeline of local talent.
Saunders might not face intense internal scrutiny until Wolves ownership and management feel they have given him a chance to win.
While Pitino suffers in comparison to Fleck, Saunders replaced Thibodeau. Thibodeau is an accomplished coach, but he did nothing to endear himself to key voices in the Wolves organization, and his mismanagement of the acquisition and trade of Jimmy Butler led to the Wolves hiring Rosas and pressing the reset button on their franchise yet again.
The Gophers are desperate for enthusiasm and aren’t getting it. The Wolves are desperate for stability and are willing to exercise patience in search of it.
My guess is that Saunders’ job will be safe until at least next winter.
Pitino might need a winning streak over the next two weeks to last past the first day of spring.