Minnesota fans — and sports fans in general but it seems more pronounced here — are notorious for being both insecure and fickle. When it comes to Gophers men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino, both of those traits have been on full display over the course of his two years with the program.
When Pitino was hired, fans who liked him also worried that because he was so young and had no clear ties to the state, he would bolt for the next-best job as soon as it came along.
After the first year, when Pitino’s Gophers won 25 games, narrowly missed the NCAA field and won the NIT title, even more of the sentiment switched to optimism — with a larger dose of insecurity mixed in as soon as Pitino was rumored to be linked to openings at other schools, most notably Tennessee.
And after Year 2, which started with dreams of an NCAA tournament run and ended without even a chance to defend that NIT title, the sentiment has switched almost 180 degrees.
The comments section on Startribune.com — not scientific at all, of course, and sometimes a dangerous place to tread — proves instructive in this case. Whereas last year the threads on Pitino stories were filled with a combination of praise for his work and fear that he might leave, the comments on a story posted Tuesday about Alabama showing interest in hiring Pitino show just how much a vocal segment of Gophers fans have turned on the coach.
“Don’t let the door hit you,” read one. “If Pitino’s last name wasn’t Pitino, he’d have a hard time getting a job at Burnsville HS,” read another. Still one more said, sarcastically, “Oh, no. Not that; anything but that.”
My read on things: Pitino hasn’t helped himself here by refusing to take much (if any) blame for this year, and it doesn’t help that he has a famous father who is also a head coach and who has taken his own shots at the talent in the program. Fans read this as a lack of accountability and a whiff of entitlement.
But Pitino leaving now would absolutely set this program back, regardless of what you think of the job he has done. Year 3 is where we should start to get a true gauge of how his system will work. If he stays and fails, so be it. If he stays and builds the program before bailing, it will be on solid footing for a new coach.
If he leaves right now, it’s the worst of both worlds — and the program would be worse off in many ways for the next coach than it was for Pitino when he took over for Tubby Smith.
So be careful what you wish for.