Next up – Richard Pitino, the 34 year old head coach at the University of Minnesota, and son of coaching legend Rick Pitino.
Important Questions, In Rough Order Of Importance:
1. Has he coached teams that have won a national title, made multiple deep NCAA tournament runs, and/or consistently been highly ranked?
No. The Gophers are lock for this year’s NCAA tournament (Jerry Palm has them as a 5 seed now), and this will be Pitino’s first trip to the NCAA tournament as a head coach.
2. Has he built a program from the ground up?
No. Pitino spent only one year as the head man at Florida International before taking over at Minnesota for Tubby Smith. Tubby’s teams consistently were around 21-14 in his 6 year tenure and made the NCAAs thrice, including in his last year when the Gophers reached the lofty KPom rank of 20 (more on Tubby’s tenure below).
Pitino’s first year was OK: 25-13 and an NIT Championship. Then the bottom fell out. 18-15 followed by 8-23. Pitino was on everyone’s “hot seat” list coming into the season. He’s responded: 23-7, 11-5 in the B1G with a chance for a second place finish, KPom ranking of 32, and as mentioned an NCAA lock.
3. Has he substantially improved the program from when he took over?
He certainly did in his brief tenure at Florida International. At the tender age of 30, Pitino took over an 8-23 team from Isiah Thomas. (Yes, this was a thing that happened – Isiah Thomas was the head basketball coach at Florida International! And he was really terrible!) He improved that win total by 10 in his lone season there, the school’s first winning season in a decade. (Note, however, that FIU only went up from 221 to 187 in the KPom rankings.)
At Minnesota, the answer is murkier. None of Tubby’s teams rated better than a #10 seed in the NCAAs, and Pitino is on track to do better than that this year. Indeed, this is looking like the best Minnesota season not tainted by scandal since 1982 (more below). 7 of the 8 rotation players are non-seniors, so things are looking up going forward. I’ll answer this question with a qualified “yes.”
4. Has he succeeded at more than one head coaching job?
Again, let’s go with a qualified “yes” here. We lack enough of a track record at both jobs to be sure.
5. Does he have significant high-major experience as either a head coach or an assistant?
Pitino has a great pedigree, especially for someone so young. Besides his 4 years at Minnesota, he has 5 years of high-major assistant experience at two winning high-majors: Louisville and Florida (under Billy Donovan).
6. Is his team one of the best in its conference right now?
Indeed. As noted, Minnesota is near the top of the (albeit somewhat down this year) B1G.
7. Do his teams actually play, what is this thing called, "defense"?
This year the Gophers are 15th in the KPom Adj Defense rankings, so yes. Past results have been spottier. In reverse order: 162, 91, 78.
Pitino’s teams at Minnesota, except his first, have played fairly up-tempo, ranging between 48 and 162 in the rankings. Articles describe Pitino’s system as a mirror of the full-court high-pressure style favored by his father. He has a video about it as well.
8. So how about offense?
Pitino’s first two teams were good offensively, ranking 38 in 2014 and 41 in 2015. The bottom fell out in 2016: 230. This year, he’s bounced back to 77. The team has not shot the ball well this year, and is only decent rebounding, but they’ve gotten to the line and taken care of the ball. They don’t take many 3s.
9. Any indication that he can recruit McDonald’s All-American-type players?
Pitino convinced top-40 recruit Amir Coffey to stay in Minnesota (he’s now a freshman) and he has a top-100 recruit committed in the incoming class. No other top-100 recruits in his Minnesota tenure, but again, Minnesota. His bio notes that Louisville signed two top 15 classes in his three years there, but how much of that one can attribute to Pitino as opposed to other factors, who knows.
So this one I rate as “unclear,” but I think he’d likely do pretty well at State in this regard as long as he hired the right assistants. Hell, Herb Sendek and Sidney Lowe recruited well here.
10. Does he have any connection to NC State, North Carolina, or the ACC?
Besides the obvious one, no. Pitino is a Providence graduate.
11. Any other random red flags or positives?
He seems to be very similar to his Dad all around – in style, work ethic, mannerisms, even appearance. I would be fine with that, your opinion may vary.
Would he be better than Gottfried?
As with other young, limited track records means one just has to shrug here. It could go either way. From one perspective, his record is 5 years as a head coach and only one really successful season, absent which he may have been fired this year. From another perspective, he’s already had success at two very difficult jobs and looks primed for more.
About that difficult job point: Before Clem Haskins arrived in 1986, Minnesota had been to the NCAAs twice. Two times. In its entire history. Haskins was quite successful: in 12 years, 6 NCAAs and 3 trips to the second weekend, including a Final Four in 1997.
Just one problem: Haskins was cheating like hell to do it, overseeing an academic fraud that even Roy had to have respected for its audacity. Unlike Roy (to date), Haskins had to suffer the consequences eventually. He was forced out in 1999, many of those wins were vacated (including the Final Four), and fairly severe sanctions were placed on Minnesota.
Dan Monson took over. Monson was the coach who first had success at Gonzaga. Why he took this job, I have no clue, and I suspect he regrets it. No doubt hampered by the sanctions, in 7+ seasons he made one NCAA appearance.
Enter Tubby Smith, following his divorce from Kentucky. Tubby’s record is summarized above. It doesn’t seem that impressive, until you consider that it’s easily the best non-Haskins 6 year stretch in Minnesota basketball history. He eventually said to hell with it and went to Texas Tech.
Pitino now is going beyond where Tubby, a damn fine coach, was able to take Minnesota. (N.B., this author always had a soft spot for Tubby.) In context, it’s quite impressive. It’s not as if the state of Minnesota churns out tons of top talent, he’s in a tough conference, and he’s faced various problems associated with the school and the athletic department, plus a long history of futility and scandal. You also have to consider that Pitino was only 31 when he started at Minnesota.
Back to the question: I think he’d likely do better than the Gott Man.
OK, so what is his ceiling?
His ceiling is that he’s his Dad. So, high.
Would he take the job if offered?
Here’s a fascinating question. Given the difficulties inherent in the Minnesota job, Pition’s evident ambition, and Pitino’s lack of any prior connection there, I can’t imagine he’ll be a lifer there. The question is, would he leave now, and would he come to NC State?
Having gone through the tough times at Minnesota early and achieved success, with the roster set up for a bright future, Pitino may think, “why leave now”? Minnesota also is building a long-awaited basketball practice facility that should help him. Then again, he may see a big season as the perfect time to move: do so now while he still can.
Did I mention that the Minnesota athletic department has been something of a shit show? Pitino was hired by former AD Norwood Teague. You may remember Norwood as the VCU AD when we tried to hire Shaka Smart in 2011, a proud UNC graduate, and a guy who sexually harasses his employees (allegedly). So Pitino is no longer employed by the guy who hired him. More recently, the football team had an embarrassing and divisive incident this year surrounding players who were suspended after being accused of sexual assault, and the team briefly boycotting as a result. No one came out of that looking good (counterpoint: Minnesota was able to lure hot coaching target PJ Fleck to take over football).
Then, the elephant in the room: Would he want to coach against his father on a regular basis?
Bottom line: In Pete Thamel’s recent coaching carousel column, he mentioned Pitino as a candidate for USF. If that’s accurate, you’d have to think he’d be interested in Raleigh. Unless he’s totally opposed to coaching against his Dad, or the elder Pitino tells him State is a crappy job, I think he’d at minimum be interested…and I say yes, he’d take the job if offered.
How would I feel if he were hired?
There’s been a lot of (very frustrating) talk in the media about how certain coaches at relatively cushy mid-major jobs will be patient and wait for the perfect opening, and not dirty their hands with the icky NC State job. Pitino doesn’t seem like that guy. Instead of waiting around, he jumped into the FIU dumpster fire, then jumped at the Minnesota job at age 31 despite all the negative history there. He’s not afraid of a challenge. I like that.
Compare Pitino to Will Wade. Both the same age. Wade had 2 good years at a low major, then took over a great position at VCU and kept its success going for two years. Pitino surely could have done something like that, but instead took a much harder road, went through some tough times at a tough P5 job, nearly got fired, but fought and emerged victorious on the other side. Yet everyone is in love with Wade while many would turn up their noses at Pitino because he had a crappy year last year. Does that make sense? I still like Wade a little more, probably, but it’s very close.
In the course of writing this profile, I have gained great respect for Pitino. I’d be very happy with this hire.
How would the fan base as a whole feel if he were hired?
As noted, you can read his track record positively or negatively. Which means that 90% of the fan base will talk themselves into this hire within a week, especially given the lure of Rick Pitino 2.0 captaining the program for the next 30 years (at least, until he leaves to coach the Brooklyn Nets in 2024).