The Gophers fired men's basketball coach Richard Pitino on Monday night, ending his up-and-down, eight-season run atop the program.
With his Minnesota tenure about to expire, Pitino, 38, interviewed for the New Mexico job on Saturday and emerged as a finalist, sources told the Star Tribune.
Pitino's contract included a $1.75 million buyout if he were fired, but it's unclear how much of that the Gophers will have to pay. Pitino could alleviate some of their cost if he takes another job.
In the news release, the Gophers also did not use the word "fired," saying they had "parted ways" with Pitino. But athletic director Mark Coyle's statement made clear it was his decision.
"I recently met with Richard and told him that we were moving in a different direction," Coyle said. "Richard is a tremendous person and coach, and I want to thank him, [his wife] Jill and their family for their commitment to Minnesota. We wish them well in their next endeavor."
Pitino could not be reached for comment, and the Gophers said Coyle would answer questions at a video news conference Tuesday morning.
In a Twitter post, Pitino said: "Always wanted to represent Minnesota the right way on a daily basis with class and integrity. Thank you for a special 8 years. Fired up for what the future holds!"
Candidates to replace Pitino — based on early speculation — include San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher, Utah State coach Craig Smith, Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, Colorado State coach Niko Medved, Cleveland State coach Dennis Gates, Loyola (Ill.) coach Porter Moser and former Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders.
"Decisions like this are never easy, but after evaluating this season and the previous eight years of our program under Richard, it is clear to me that new leadership is needed," Coyle said in the news release. "We have one of the best practice facilities in the nation, a historic competition venue and a state that produces top-caliber talent. This is an extremely attractive job, and we will immediately start a nationwide search for our next head coach."
Pitino's dismissal came on a busy day of coaching changes across college basketball.
Indiana fired coach Archie Miller, announcing it would use private donations to help pay the $10.35 million buyout. Iowa State agreed to part ways with Steve Prohm. DePaul fired Dave Leitao. Penn State hired Purdue associate head coach Micah Shrewsberry.
Hired after one season at Florida International, Pitino went 141-123 at Minnesota, including 54-96 in the Big Ten.
His buyout shrunk from five years ago, when it was $7.1 million with the Gophers coming off an 8-23 season. Pitino rebounded to win Big Ten Coach of the Year honors in 2017 and made the NCAA tournament again in 2019, when he and Coyle negotiated his current contract.
Pitino had three more years left on that deal, with a $2.46 million salary, and would have received a $400,000 retention bonus had he remained in the job on April 30.
Last year, when the Gophers finished 15-16 in his seventh season, the buyout was $2 million.
In Pitino's contract, it states that to collect his buyout, he must reduce the university's payment obligations "by trying to obtain comparable employment as soon as it's reasonably possible."
The New Mexico opening came after what the school called a mutual parting with Paul Wier, who had former Pitino assistant Dan McHale on his coaching staff.
Under Pitino, the Gophers finished 14-15 this season, capped with a loss to Ohio State last Thursday.
The Gophers opened the season projected to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten. Only starting guards Marcus Carr and Gabe Kalscheur returned from a 15-16 team, but Pitino had NCAA tournament hopes after landing coveted transfers Liam Robbins, Both Gach and Brandon Johnson.
Carr and Robbins led the Gophers to five victories over ranked opponents at home, including over Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State. But they collapsed in February after injuries to Kalscheur (broken finger) and Robbins (ankle sprain), which included finishing as the only winless Big Ten team on the road at 0-10 in the regular season.
The Gophers went 6-14 in conference play. They had only one winning Big Ten regular-season record under Pitino, at 11-7 in 2016-17. The Gophers were 25-51 in league play in the past four seasons. In 2017, Pitino was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year after putting together the biggest turnaround in team history, going from eight to 24 wins and his first NCAA tourney appearance.
Pitino's job appeared to be in jeopardy last year when Minnesota threatened to miss the NCAA tournament with nine losses in 12 games from late January to early March. Still, the Gophers won their last two games, vs. Nebraska in the home finale and in the first round of the Big Ten tournament vs. Northwestern. The pandemic shutdown of the season kept Coyle from a decision, according to sources.
Last March after the Big Ten tourney, Coyle released a statement that Pitino would be back as Gophers coach, but it wasn't a rousing endorsement.
"Coach Pitino and I met," Coyle said in that statement. "Richard understands my high expectations for our program, which is to compete at a championship level."