Richard Pitino enjoyed a relaxing moment in his office last week, which was notable since turmoil has recently engulfed the Gophers athletic department.
Pitino has been there. Wasn’t pleasant, but he learned a lot because of it.
“If it didn’t kill me,” he said, “it will absolutely make me stronger.”
The Gophers men’s basketball program suddenly appears on solid footing under Pitino after a transformational offseason. The bounce-back from a disastrous season first required a commitment to change off the court.
Pitino created a program for his players that covered a wide range of topics, including sex education and social media’s impact on hiring practices.
The basketball part has experienced a makeover, too.
The Gophers are 14-2 and poised to enter the top 25 after winning consecutive Big Ten road games for the first time since 2012. The old Barn should be rocking again for Sunday’s game against Ohio State.
Pitino’s team finally has Big Ten-caliber talent, unlike the overmatched outfit that won only eight games last season and lost more times (23) than any team in program history.
The Gophers have more size and depth, and their versatility gives Pitino increased options. We’re starting to see his coaching acumen more now. And they are fun to watch again.
“We sensed it would be a totally different team,” Pitino said. “It’s a more complete team.”
The Gophers are slowly distancing themselves from one of the worst seasons in program history with better recruiting and a commitment to repairing their tattered image.
Their off-the-court problems don’t need repeating. The fallout put Pitino in the crosshairs, most notably with university President Eric Kaler, who issued a rebuke during the introductory news conference for Pitino’s new boss, Mark Coyle.
Kaler fumed that he was “profoundly disappointed in the continuing episodes, poor judgment, alleged crimes, and it simply can’t continue.”
Piercing words, but Pitino knew they weren’t wrong.
“We had some incidents where guys were acting irresponsibly and I have to take ownership of that,” he said. “It’s my responsibility. I brought those kids in. If they screw up, I’m not doing a good enough job.”
Pitino heard people calling for his job while noting that his massive buyout made it impossible to fire him.
“I just hated hearing that,” he said. “It made my skin so uneasy. But I get it. You win eight games and your guys get in trouble, you should not be praised.”
Pitino didn’t pretend his mountainous mess was a molehill. He showed self-awareness in realizing that the stain would not go away without substantive change.
“I haven’t done a lot in this profession as a head coach because I haven’t been a head coach for that long,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot to stand on. So I couldn’t sit there and say, ‘This is my track record, leave me alone.’ I’ve got to do something to teach these guys and improve the image of our program.”
His brainchild should be copied by every Gophers team. He created a program he calls Gopher PRIDE, which is a series of self-improvement initiatives that he cataloged in a manual. He keeps a copy on a table in his office.
Each player received the spiral manual at the start of summer school. The first two pages outline team rules, followed by class schedules and workout calendars.
One page contained a list of seven names — five boosters, along with Kaler’s and Coyle’s name. Each player wrote letters to those seven people — the boosters’ names were different for each player.
“Not necessarily apologizing,” Pitino said, “but just getting those people to understand that we understand the responsibilities on us.”
Pitino also organized weekly seminars. He started with former Gophers player Walter Bond, a motivational speaker who talked to them about the pressures of being a college athlete.
In another session, former Gopher John Thomas discussed the importance of being involved in the community.
One seminar focused on sex education. Pitino had contacted NFL star Larry Fitzgerald Jr., a Minneapolis native, looking for suggestions on an expert in that field who had spoken to his football teams.
Fitzgerald recommended an AIDS counselor his mother knew from Atlanta named Sandra McDonald, known as “Miss Mac.” McDonald has counseled NFL teams on a variety of sex-related topics. She visited the Gophers twice and still remains in contact with players.
“Our guys made mistakes, but we can’t throw them out to the curb,” Pitino said. “We have to love them and Miss Mac was awesome with that.”
Pitino also had his players meet with staff from the Aurora Center, a campus advocacy center for victims of sexual assault. The presentation covered different topics, including what constitutes consent.
One week, Pitino invited members of Target’s human resources department to talk to his players about hiring practices and how their tweets and public actions can affect future job prospects.
The final piece to PRIDE was a community service outing at Target Field in which the Gophers visited with underprivileged youth. Pitino’s players spent four hours playing and interacting with the kids.
“You could just see the guys growing as people,” Pitino said.
It would be naïve to think off-the-court problems won’t ever arise again. But Pitino should be commended for looking inward and taking steps to educate his players.
Cynics might view it as a PR attempt to calm the wolves. But Pitino hasn’t discussed details of his program publicly until now.
“I really wanted to improve the image of our program,” he said. “It wasn’t a cover-your-butt type of thing.”
The spotlight shining on his program now is far more enjoyable.