Richard Pitino is in his second year as Gophers men’s basketball coach, and heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale against Penn State many outsiders would consider the year a disappointment. Pitino chatted Friday with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand about his view of the season and the program as a whole.
Q You haven’t written a blog post since October. If you had to write a post right now about the season in review, what would it say?
A We certainly have had more highs I think than people would realize, and we’ve certainly had a lot of close losses. I think more than anything there was a belief that because you win the NIT in your first year that you’re automatically going to make a huge leap in the second year, and I was very concerned with that going into the season. But it’s too early to really give an assessment of the season because we’re hoping we’re playing for at least another couple of weeks.
Q This is just your third year as a college basketball head coach. What are the biggest things you’ve learned so far, and in what areas are you still figuring things out?
A I think coaching in the Big Ten as opposed to at [Florida International] is completely different. Every game that we play is on national TV of some sort. That part of it was an adjustment for me, kind of being that focal point where any time you show emotion the camera is on you. Anytime you say or do something it’s going to be scrutinized. … The coaches in this league certainly make you better. The biggest thing that the Big Ten does for you is it challenges you and brings the most out of you.
Q There’s a honeymoon period in a coach’s first season, and you earned it with a 25-win season. How have you handled criticism in what many consider a disappointing second year?
A I think this year more than anything has taught me that expectations should only matter within your program. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the media or respect people’s opinion or our program. I certainly do. But at the end of the day, none of it can matter. We’ve had our fair share of criticism, but what if we hit a three at the buzzer and we win a few of those games? Are we all good coaches again? … Everybody is not going to be able to understand what we’re doing or what we’re going through, but as long as everybody in our program does, that’s all we can really worry about. And that’s the nature of sports everywhere.
Q You’ve been very conscious of embracing the existing facilities at the U, unlike your predecessor, Tubby Smith. Was that a conscious decision, even though you clearly know what a new basketball facility — which is in the works with a big fundraising project — can mean for this program?
A It’s two-fold, to be honest. I don’t want my players or my staff ever thinking that we don’t have enough to get it done. … The other thing is, I don’t want any local recruits thinking we don’t have enough, either. Because that’s not a great message to send. I think our guys, our team, needs to be built up. I don’t think they need to be constantly told about what they don’t have or can’t do. So that goes into my mindset.