Richard Pitino's postgame comments to the Gophers on Saturday at Nebraska have left some members of the team believing he is likely down to his final games as their coach, sources close to the program told the Star Tribune.
Pitino is approaching the end of his eighth season with the Gophers (13-12, 6-12 Big Ten), but the realistic chances of making the NCAA tournament vanished after back-to-back losses last week to Big Ten bottom feeders Northwestern and Nebraska.
According to the sources, it was an emotional scene inside the locker room following Saturday's loss at Pinnacle Bank Arena. If the Northwestern defeat at home two nights earlier had left Pitino searching for words, the Gophers coach went a different direction in Lincoln, delivering a message that left the team convinced he will be let go at season's end.
Pitino and Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle could not be reached for comment.
On WCCO radio this morning, Coyle said: "I don't talk about our coaches until the seasons are over, and you have to look at the entire body of work." Pitino is scheduled to talk to reporters later today.
Pitino typically jumps into the postgame news conference after doing his team radio interview. But reporters had to wait about 20 minutes after the Cornhuskers game, much longer than usual.
The Gophers had suffered their fifth consecutive loss. Pitino didn't go into detail about that postgame talk, saying "I won't tell you everything," when asked on the video conference call.
"I just told them, 'Enjoy the process. Enjoy being in college,'" Pitino said. "It's a weird college experience, obviously, but embrace it, love it. Love the time you have with your teammates. Love playing basketball.
"Obviously, we've dealt with a lot of adversity. The one thing I've said over and over again is nobody's going to ever feel sorry for you. That's just the reality of it. So, put your heart and soul into whatever it is you do every single day."
A day after Northwestern ended a 13-game losing streak by winning at Williams Arena, Coyle met with Pitino about his future, according to these sources. But there has yet to be a definitive word on how exactly this will be handled.
If Coyle dismisses Pitino before April 30, the university could owe Pitino a $1.75 million buyout, which is down from $7.1 million five years ago. If Coyle decides to keep Pitino, the Gophers would owe Pitino a $400,000 retention bonus — on top of his $2.5 million salary for next season — and the buyout would drop to $1.5 million.
Pitino's record in eight seasons sits at 140-120 at Minnesota, including 54-94 in the Big Ten. After winning Big Ten Coach of the Year and reaching his first NCAA tourney in 2017, Pitino got one year added to his contract. Two years ago, Coyle extended Pitino's contract through the 2023-24 season after the Gophers beat Louisville in the NCAA tournament's first round.
But after Pitino finished with his sixth losing Big Ten record in seven seasons last March, when the Gophers' season ended at 15-16 as the coronavirus pandemic hit, Coyle said he met him and released this statement: "Richard understands my high expectations for our program, which is to compete at a championship level."
The Gophers looked more than capable of meeting those expectations in January, when they were ranked 16th nationally and projected as high as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. They reeled off victories over Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State — all teams ranked in the top 10.
But the Gophers are 2-8 in their past 10 games, and as the losses piled up in February, there was a growing chorus of fans calling for Pitino to be fired. The team has been hit with injuries to two key starters, center Liam Robbins (sprained ankle) and shooting guard Gabe Kalscheur (broken finger), and doesn't look the same.
Beyond the back-to-back losses to Northwestern and Nebraska — teams with a combined Big Ten record of 6-27 — the Gophers also had a humiliating 31-point loss at home to Illinois.
The Nebraska loss dropped Minnesota to 0-9 on the road. The Gophers finish the regular season with games Wednesday at Penn State and Saturday at home vs. Rutgers. Coyle waited to address Pitino's future last season until after the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were canceled.
But ever since Pitino's emotional postgame speech Saturday, the general feeling around the team is that the end is near.