In a neat trick, he’s also one of the youngest. Pitino is in his fourth season at Minnesota yet is two years younger than P.J. Fleck, who looks like America’s nephew.
Pitino’s belated success offers a reminder of why Minnesota hired him and emphasizes why the school was wise to stick with him. It’s also a reminder of how volatile his profession can be.
Minnesota could have fired Pitino last spring. Instead, he is getting a chance to show off coaching chops with his first impressive recruiting class.
Gopher men’s hockey coach Don Lucia has the longest tenure in town if we want to include the Big Ten’s version of college hockey as a major-revenue sport. I don’t.
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve also has more tenure than Pitino. While the Lynx is an impressive operation, the WNBA can’t be described as a major-revenue league.
Pitino has held his job longer than Bruce Boudreau, Tom Thibodeau, Mike Zimmer, Paul Molitor and Fleck. He is 34 yet already has taken a beating in the Big Ten, won an NIT title, dealt with a scandal, lost key recruits, started winning his share of recruiting jousts locally and nationally and elevated a previously troubled program into the national rankings.
If Fleck ever needs any advice on surviving the University of Minnesota’s awkward sports culture, he can walk down the hall.
“It’s a little bit different with him,” Pitino said Tuesday. “Where I thought I struggled a little is that when I was hired, as lucky as I was to be hired, I didn’t really have a personal brand. What I mean by that is, we didn’t go to the tournament at FIU [Florida International]. We came close, but we didn’t.
“Nobody could say, ‘Hey, that’s the coach who went to the tournament.’ So I couldn’t sell that. The only thing I could sell was, ‘Hey, I’m Rick Pitino’s son.’ That’s not gonna work. I’m not selling that one.”
Pitino found himself with a high-profile job facing high expectations at age 30. Whatever Tubby Smith’s flaws, his formula kept his teams competitive, and he won an NCAA tournament game before Norwood Teague fired him.
“It was kind of difficult at first,” Pitino said, standing by the practice court in the Bierman Building. “Our facilities were very outdated. So we had to battle that. We redid this stuff, which I thought helped. We won the NIT my first year. I did think that helped.
“With P.J., he just went to the Cotton Bowl. He rebuilt a program where he won one game his first year. So he’s got a great personal brand. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to go through highs and lows. But he seems to be a very positive person. I think he’ll be able to handle it just fine.”
Fleck and Pitino are in their mid-30s. The median age of the other high-profile coaches in town is about 60.
“When you’re young, there is no manual for certain things, and the only way to get it is to experience it,” Pitino said. “So I do feel like after going into my fourth year I’m much more equipped to handle certain things.”
Pitino started to describe his job as “tough,” then stopped.
“I hate it when everybody says ‘It’s a tough job,’ ” Pitino said. “It’s a great job. We’re lucky. But it is up and down. One day everybody wants you fired, the next day everybody loves you. I guess the older I get — and it’s weird, because I feel old — the more I realize you can’t get too high or low. It sounds cliché, but it’s very important for your mental stability.”
The Gophers will play at Michigan State on Wednesday. They are ranked 24th in the country and tied for first in the Big Ten. That kind of high is good for career stability.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org