After a few weeks of silence while his name was connected to three separate job openings – the Alabama situation appearing to be the only one with real legs, although St. John’s and Tennessee were also mentioned – Richard Pitino released a statement on Friday morning addressing the buzz.
“With regard to the reports tying me to other collegiate men’s coaching positions, let me simply say that I am very happy at the University of Minnesota. I am grateful to be coaching and living in such a great community that cares so much about this incredible university as well as its basketball program. I am also extremely fortunate to be working for one of the best athletic directors in the country in Norwood Teague. This state deserves great basketball program and we are working extremely hard to bring them one.”
This release probably served its purpose in that it calmed many fans worried about a quick Pitino exit. But just as notable as the words he wrote, perhaps, are the words he didn’t. And that makes sense. A program like Minnesota, especially in this era of coach-hopping, shouldn't just expect to keep its coaches without making serious efforts.
A few thoughts of my own after reading his:
1. Does this mean Pitino is definitely not leaving? No, it doesn’t. I do believe he’s genuinely happy in Minnesota, as he says, and the jump-and-rebuild, jump-and-rebuild process is not a fun one for coaches. While next year’s team will be young and raw and could struggle a lot, it will finally be his foundation: players recruited to his system; a culture firmly in place. At the same time, this is not a business of loyalty. If and when the right offer comes, Pitino may well leave and it could be before people think. In his release, he stopped short of saying he is staying or making any meaningful statement beyond the fact that he likes it here. To be clear, I don’t think Pitino plans on leaving. But at this stage, I’m also not sure he plans on not leaving.
2. Despite frustration from the local fanbase, Pitino’s value from a national perspective hasn’t gone down. Pitino was hired at Minnesota two years ago on the basis that he a) had a stellar resume as an assistant b) seemed to have a lot of upside and room to grow and c) the name doesn’t hurt. One thing he wasn’t hired for? His immaculate record as a head coach. He’d only coached one year in that role, after all, and although it was a solid one at Florida International, it hardly provided the sample size to determine anything. The reason places like Minnesota (or Alabama, for that matter) make hires like this is that they hope to get in on the ground floor. Once a young, trendy coach gets to be TOO hot a name, he becomes unhireable for the Minnesotas and the Alabamas of the world. He becomes a Shaka Smart or a Brad Stevens. But most coaches go through some early growing pains. Programs who look at Pitino’s body of work, in its context (shortened recruiting periods, in one of the toughest leagues in the country) and determine they see potential there, would be smart to try to lure him away before he wins his way to the next tier. Hires like this have big risk as well, of course, and Minnesota did take on some risk when hiring Pitino. It’s also probably the only way a place like Minnesota or Alabama gets a GREAT coach at this stage of the program (that or rain money). Pitino’s value hasn’t diminished at all because he’s still 32 and a third-year head coach. The upside and the potential is still there – he hasn’t fallen on his face, after all – even if the immediate results aren’t.
3. This was beneficial for Pitino until it wasn’t. In this latest round of job openings that were touched off with a couple of firings after the season, it made complete sense for Pitino to quietly remain in the background, and let the rumors fly. Let people go nuts. Let other athletic directors see his name over and over. Let his own fanbase get a little taste of only seeing the value of something once it’s threatened. Let his own administration get a little worried, as well. But enough is enough. The Gophers have three scholarships available, still, for the 2015 class and will likely need to fill at least a few of them. So many rumors in the news isn’t great for recruiting, and gets to be a distraction after a while. And assuming Pitino doesn’t find that right offer this summer, he’ll need some more players come fall.
4. There is a formula for keeping a head coach:
a) Winning tradition.
c) Fan support.
Right now, Pitino only has one of the four at Minnesota. Although the administration is promising shovels in the ground for a basketball practice facility this fall, such projects can take years. A history of success? Many recruits weren’t even born the last time the Gophers made a notable NCAA tournament run, and even those stellar 90s years were stripped away. The fan support is a bit demanding, but true, so coaches here do have that going for them. As for raises? Pitino hasn’t gotten one of those yet; not after his NIT championship and not now, despite his name finding its way into so many job opening conversations. Frankly, until he receives a token of the university’s good faith in him, he shouldn’t make any promises to stay. Friday, he didn’t.