A year ago, Richard Pitino faced heavy speculation about his job status when the Gophers' season ended abruptly at the Big Ten tournament.
The sports world shut down because of the pandemic, but the very next day, Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle saw it important enough to make a statement, supporting his embattled basketball coach, while also setting higher expectations for him to "compete at a championship level."
Pitino followed with another losing season, which ended with Thursday's loss to Ohio State at the Big Ten tournament. But this time, there was no day-after statement from Coyle about Pitino's future.
Coyle's silence might have been a sign that a much different decision is looming.
Pitino and Coyle couldn't be reached for comment Friday, but they said recently they would meet after the season about his uncertain future.
Coyle also could be waiting for Pitino to secure another job behind the scenes. Pitino is owed a $1.75 million buyout if he's dismissed by April 30. If he stays, he'd get a $400,000 retention bonus.
In Pitino's contract, it also states that to collect his buyout, he's required to lessen the university's payment obligations by trying to obtain comparable employment as soon as possible. If he leaves there is no buyout, and sources said it's possible Pitino will interview for the New Mexico coaching opening this weekend.
But all that could depend on Coyle's intentions.
"If he gives me some bad news," Pitino said Thursday, "that doesn't mean I'm going to flip a desk or anything. Life goes on. I respect authority. I respect tough decisions. I don't worry about life being fair or not. I try to pour my heart and soul into it."
Pitino's players also poured everything they had into the end of an inconsistent and injury-plagued season, his eighth leading the program. The Gophers beat Northwestern for the second straight year to open the Big Ten tourney, but they fell by four points to the Buckeyes in the next round. Pitino finished with a 14-15 record after losing eight of his last nine games.
Coyle's last public comments on Pitino came March 2 after the Gophers lost their fifth game in a row at Nebraska. Sources had told the Star Tribune that Pitino, following that loss, had led members of the team to believe he wasn't going to be back as coach.
Shortly after, Coyle told WCCO radio that he did meet with Pitino, but he didn't get into specifics about their conversation.
"I don't talk about our coaches until the seasons are over," Coyle told the station, "and you have to look at the entire body of work."
Pitino, who has a 140-122 record at Minnesota, has three years left on his contract that runs through the 2023-24 season.
When he was hired away from Florida International in 2013, the university had to pay FIU a $250,000 buyout. It also owed former Gophers coach Tubby Smith a $2.5 million buyout for firing him.
This time, the economic fallout from the pandemic could make it more difficult for the U to absorb another buyout. Just last fall, Coyle announced that men's track and field, men's gymnastics and men's tennis would be eliminated at season's end, citing a need to cut costs and correct a Title IX imbalance.
The regents approved an amended proposal in October that spared men's outdoor track. Coyle estimated the sports cuts would save $1.6 million, while he said athletics faced a deficit of $45 million to $65 million.
Paying a buyout that costs more than the cuts would save is likely to upset Gophers boosters of the eliminated sports, who have continued efforts to save the programs.
Coyle told WCCO radio earlier this month that he'd work closely with U President Joan Gabel and the regents on how buyouts potentially would play into the athletic department's financial hits this year.
"Our goals are always to make the best long-term decisions for the institution and our athletic program," Coyle said. "So, we'll have to weigh in all the factors as we look at all of our coaching positions."