It makes sense that Richard Pitino would double down.
Pitino, the 34-year-old coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s basketball team, is reeling from an epic run of carnage, a year of historic ineptitude and variously arrogant and appalling behavior.
On an afternoon in October, a small gaggle of media convenes in the Bierman Building on the U of M campus, waiting for their first glimpse of the 2016-17 edition of the Gophers and their first chat with the coach.
As time drags on, there’s a mixture of snide wisecracks and gallows humor interspersed with sober, head-shaking empathy — a logical media mob response to a program coming off a 2-16 season in the Big 10 while adding its soupcon to an athletic department drenched in scandal.
The group is led to the gym as the echoes of bouncing balls and squeaky sneakers subside. Pitino walks over.
“Thanks for coming,” he says, oozing relaxation. “Obviously I’m excited about this team. It’s the most complete team, it’s the most talented team, and the most versatile team that we’ve had.”
That’s interesting. Because the first team Pitino had at the U was in 2013-14. It was composed mostly of recruits from his predecessor, Tubby Smith, and won a school record 25 games while capturing the NIT championship.
With everyone’s mind still seared from that 2-16 pratfall, Pitino is already opining that he now has a squad more complete, talented, and versatile.
It’s a display of feisty defiance coming off the ropes, for it’s still unclear how good of a coach Pitino can be. If nothing else, his pedigree has afforded him a keen understanding of the meat grinder that is major college sports in the 21st century.
Pitino recalls his schoolboy days, when his dad, Rick, coached Kentucky. “Basketball is a big deal there and he won a national championship,” Richard says. “Then he went to Boston and he didn’t do so well. And I learned the lesson that you are loved one day and hated the next, and you can’t take that personal.
“Whenever you hear about a famous coach’s son or daughter, there is always going to be an assumption of what that person may be. And I don’t think I’m that. I think I am extremely grateful, extremely humble. I know I wouldn’t be sitting here if my last name wasn’t Pitino and that I’m lucky to have this opportunity. I’m stronger mentally now than I was and I am ready to win. I’m not a boastful guy — I’d rather show than tell. But I’m excited about what we are going to do.”
Translation: Richard Pitino knows he’s not here to grow into the job. He’s here because the U bet on the notion that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Doubling down is a bold stroke straight from his father’s PR playbook.
Rick Pitino was the first coach in NCAA history to take three different programs to the Final Four, the first to win a National Championship with two of them. He’s already in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It is not a place you enter by waiting your turn.
In the 1970s, the NCAA recommended that the University of Hawaii dump the elder Pitino for facilitating plane trips, free meals, and the use of automobiles for players — and for trying to cover up his misdeeds.
More than a decade later, he told a New York Times reporter, “I didn’t make any mistakes. I don’t care what anybody says.”
When his tenure with the Boston Celtics wasn’t going well in 2000, Pitino castigated the city’s fans. “All the negativity that’s in this town sucks.... It makes the greatest city in the world lousy.”
In 2003, Pitino had quickie sex with a woman in a Louisville restaurant. Six years later, she tried to extort him, then claimed she was raped. He held a press conference to apologize for his “indiscretion,” then held another to demand that the media “stop reporting these lies.” The woman was eventually convicted of extortion, lying to the FBI, and retaliating against a witness.
And when it was exposed last year that one of his chief assistants paid over $5,000 so prostitutes could perform strip teases and sex acts for at least 17 recruits at Louisville, Pitino claimed with a straight face that neither he nor anyone else who reports to him knew it was happening.
The Louisville prostitute scandal broke in October 2015, adding to a wretched run of events. For Richard Pitino, it seemed like everyone in his orbit — his father, administrators who brought him to the U, and his players — was caught in headline stories of reprehensible behavior.
Two months earlier, Daquein McNeil, a Gophers guard, pleaded guilty to choking his girlfriend and assaulting her with a belt as she fled half-naked from her apartment.
Four days later, athletic director Norwood Teague abruptly resigned after it was revealed he had sexually harassed two U employees at a leadership retreat, groping both and badgering one with a fusillade of sexually graphic texts.
Other women soon came forward — including Amelia Rayno, a Star Tribune basketball writer — with tales of Teague’s physically creepy behavior.
Two weeks after Teague’s resignation, his right-hand man, associate athletic director Mike Ellis, took a paid leave of absence after being accused of showing porn to U employees back in 2012. The complaint also alleged that Ellis and Teague were shunning employees who disapproved of this behavior. (Ellis eventually resigned and was never charged with any wrongdoing.)
These were the men most responsible for bringing Pitino to Minnesota. Teague, a notoriously high-powered fund-raiser, was hired to make it rain on behalf of fancy new athletic facilities. But another part of his allure was his partnership with Ellis, the brains behind Villa 7, a consortium designed to connect young assistant coaches with athletic directors who may be in the market for an under-the-radar basketball savant.
When they were both at Virginia Commonwealth, the pair used the system to tap little-known Shaka Smart, the wunderkind who took an obscure program all the way to the Final Four.
When Teague jolted the Gopher community by firing Tubby Smith less than 24 hours after Smith had taken the team into the third round of the NCAA tournament — and less than a year after he signed Smith to a three-year extension — the expectation was that Shaka Smart was lined up as Tubby’s replacement. Instead, Smart leveraged the overture into a raise and extension at VCU.
Teague and Ellis were suddenly seen as floundering in their marquee moment. Reports began to leak out that established names, such as former Timberwolves coach and Gopher Flip Saunders, as well as hotshots on the Villa 7 roster, were turning down the job. Teague needed an audacious hire with a little juice to fire up the fan base.
He found it in a 30-year-old coach with just one year of experience running a team, going 18-14 with Florida International University in the lowly Sun Belt Conference. But there was a beguiling part to this bold choice: His last name was Pitino.
Initially, it clicked. After matching Tubby’s 8-10 record in Big 10 play, Pitino’s first Gopher team offered a feel-good rookie campaign, defeating legendary coach Larry Brown and SMU to capture the NIT championship.
That modest achievement remains the high point of the Richard Pitino experience.
The next step was backward, a desultory 18-15 record, with five of those losses coming in the last six games. Suddenly, Pitino didn’t seem like such a hot young commodity.
Or did he?
Three weeks after the end of that 2014-15 season, Strib columnist Sid Hartman wrote a tidbit titled “Pitino might leave.” It remains a quintessential example of how sports figures — especially if they’re connected to nationally renowned folks Sid craves as “close personal friends” — can stovepipe information by leaking a “scoop” to Hartman.
“Gopher Athletic Director Norwood Teague is going to have to come up with some great incentives to keep men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino if Pitino is offered the job at Alabama,” Hartman wrote.
“The Crimson Tide already has a great basketball facility and a hotbed of talent in Alabama. It can offer more money, and have a much better chance of putting together a winner than Pitino currently has with the Gophers.”
Dave Mona, a longtime radio analyst for Gopher sports who also co-hosted a show with Hartman, is a keen, connected observer of the athletic department.
“I don’t know if I believe in conspiracy theories enough to believe that Richard and his father had anything to do with those Alabama rumors,” he says. “Was Pitino advantaged by those rumors? Absolutely. Did the prior AD, who had staked his reputation on Pitino and didn’t want to lose him, panic a little bit? I think you could say that.”
Whether Pitino was a conduit for Hartman’s item or not, he clearly used it to his advantage. In the wake of Teague’s resignation, university President Eric Kaler revealed that Teague began drawing up an extension and raise for Pitino in April 2015, the same month Hartman’s column appeared.
The deal extended Pitino’s tenure two more years and raised his salary $400,000 per season, to $1.6 million annually. But the real kicker was the boon to Pitino’s job security: buyout terms that boosted Pitino’s severance pay from $3 million to $7 million, an amount that gradually declines the longer he remains on the job.
It was a sweetheart pact for a 32-year-old coach with three years of experience and not a single NCAA berth. A year later, it would look to be little more than a sucker’s bet, with the U playing the stooge.
The 2015-16 campaign marked the first season Pitino could coach his own recruits, regarded as the moment the rubber meets the road for a coach. Pitino thought so in his remarks before the season. “There is a feel now in this third year that every guy in this program was recruited to play the way we want to play,” he said.
And it was about to go dreadfully wrong. The first indication came at home in December, when the Gophers lost games against South Dakota, South Dakota State, and Milwaukee. They would embark on a 14-game losing streak that included 25-point losses to Big 10 mediocrities Northwestern and Nebraska.
Then things got ugly.
In late February, Pitino suspended three players, including leading scorer Nate Mason, for their involvement in a sex tape posted by freshman Kevin Dorsey on his Twitter account. All three players were guards, a position already undermanned. Ten days earlier, Pitino kicked guard and senior captain Carlos Morris off the squad for unspecified “conduct detrimental to the team.” A walk-on from Hopkins, Stephon Sharp, logged heavy minutes in the backcourt the rest of the season.
If Pitino was thinking this barrage of bad news would end with the cessation of the season, he was mistaken.
On May 8, junior forward Reggie Lynch, an Edina native, was arrested on suspicion of criminal sexual conduct and suspended from the team. (No charges were ever filed and Lynch was reinstated in September.)
Three days later, the U released an audit of the Athletic Department. The big news was that Pitino had blown out his annual $50,000 travel budget three years running. He’d spent $113,000 in 2014, then $156,000 in 2015.
Layered atop all this was a casual arrogance. Yes, there were private jets, apparently an occasional necessity in the high-powered world of major college recruiting. But Pitino would rent cars and drive to the airport when the U had buses available for that purpose. His rental car bills were repeatedly socked because he didn’t bring the cars back with full tanks of gas.
The U even spent $2,298 just to have Pitino’s dog driven up from Florida, paid for as a moving expense.
A few days after the audit was released, Kaler introduced Mark Coyle as the new athletic director. During his remarks, the president went out of his way to say he was “profoundly disappointed” in the men’s basketball program.
What Kaler failed to mention was that he had continued to enable Pitino after Teague left the building.
Pitino may have overrun the jet travel budget by $180,000 since being hired, but he says that Teague had assured him it would be covered. But Board of Regents member Michael Hsu says there was no record of where that money would come from.
Hsu was likewise bothered that Teague did not keep much of a record about the renegotiation of Pitino’s contract. “I would expect the head of athletics to write up a memo explaining why he felt the need to substantially increase the salary of the coach,” Hsu says. “But there was nothing. It was all done verbally.”
Still, Pitino’s extension remained unsigned at the time of Teague’s resignation. At that point, the U could have called the Alabama bluff and stuck with the existing terms.
Instead, the day Teague resigned, interim athletic director Beth Goetz signed off on behalf of the Department of Athletics. But Kaler had just appointed Goetz, who was hardly in a position to be up to speed on the minutiae. Meanwhile, the other signature that counted came from Amy Phenix, signing on behalf of the Board of Regents. Phenix is Kaler’s chief of staff.
Kaler’s rationale: The terms had essentially been ironed out in April. Intervening events hadn’t affected the reasons behind the deal. Hsu disagrees.
He says that many board members didn’t know about the Teague situation until the night before he resigned. Although Kaler eventually informed the board’s leadership, the president sat on the damning information for more than two weeks before the contract was signed.
“There was an inflated buyout for a coach as the athletic director was resigning. My question was, why weren’t we using that time to hit the pause button in that situation and find out what was going on?”
Hsu is also bothered by the way the Athletic Department reports to regents. Only one report is given annually in July. Because the fiscal year ends June 30, the information can be up to a year old.
Hsu proposed that the regents be given authority to approve any contract over $600,000 in total, or $250,000 annually. Until 1995, the board routinely stamped all contracts.
At that time, then-President Nils Hasselmo recommended that, in order to avoid wasting time on extensive bureaucracy, the board’s authority be removed. Regents chairwoman Jean Keffeler understood the general point, but resisted ceding authority over high-buck contracts. She specifically cited coaches’ contracts that might be problematic.
The upshot, according to Hsu, is that the board retained approval if the contract was “of high public interest” and exceeded $2 million. Pitino’s met both criteria.
“I suggested we hadn’t followed our procedures,” Hsu says. “When people didn’t want to discuss that with me, I decided to write up a resolution that would change the policy to include salaries outside of athletics as well.”
The regents are scheduled to address the matter in December.
The dilemma, of course, is one of turf and power. “I think the regents are split,” says Mona. “Some of the regents are making noise, but are there enough of them to seize that ultimate power? I’m not sure of that, especially with someone as respected as Coyle coming in as AD.”
It seems likely the board will take some action. According to Chairman Dean Johnson, a former legislator with good political instincts, a move to oversee contracts in excess of $625,000 per year will likely be introduced in December. Johnson notes that it would affect “very few people — the head coaches of the three revenue-producing sports, football, basketball, and hockey, perhaps the offensive and defensive coordinators in football, and the head of the medical school.”
It would not be retroactive. “A contract is a contract,” he stresses.
Johnson leaves little doubt of the need for oversight. “Some of the severance deals that are being reported in the paper are obscene,” he says, citing the $25 million buyout Iowa football coach Kirk Ferenz could reap. “We’re not going to have that at the University of Minnesota. We are in favor of market-based contracts, but the money should be in incentives, not buyouts.”
None of this matters if the team wins. The more successful a team’s performance, the less culpable a coach seems in the event of wrongdoing.
Down in Louisville, it appears ridiculous to believe that one assistant cooked up the entire scheme by which recruits were treated to strippers and prostitutes. Yet the NCAA limited the allegations against Rick Pitino to his “failure to monitor” the program. The more officially damning charge — “lack of institutional control” — was not levied.
The supposed “ringleader,” Andre McGee, was last seen driving for Uber, his athletic career ruined. Pitino may face a fine and/or suspension, but he’ll eventually put the incident behind him.
Meanwhile, Louisville administrators claim McGee acted alone and assert that Pitino “always has been committed to NCAA compliance.”
The irony is that Richard Pitino hasn’t engaged in any behavior that would rival that of his father, his former patron Teague, or a handful of his players.
Yes, he’s been fast and loose with spending, as one might expect of someone who’s spent his life around big-time programs. Big-time coaches who consistently win at big-time programs are worth their weight in gold. When the University of Michigan bought out football coach Brady Hoke and brought in Jim Harbaugh at an enormous bump in salary, booster enthusiasm more than compensated for the extra cost.
But while Richard Pitino has a big-time last name, the signature wins haven’t outnumbered the embarrassments. A program that was $11 million in the black in 2012 was down to just $3.8 million in 2015. And that was before last year’s horror show.
As he awaits the onset of the Big 10 season, Pitino has been proclaimed to be “on the hot seat” by prominent outlets. It’s a no-brainer — the losses, the spending, the scandals. But don’t think for a moment that he’ll go down without a fight.
Yes, he will talk about knowing the priorities of life, how two of his three young children were born during his tenure in Minnesota, and how lucky he is to find such an exalted post this early in life.
All of it is true. And all of it is mostly beside the point.
Recall the lesson he learned from the roller coaster of his dad’s career: They love you one moment and hate you the next, and you can’t take that personally. You just have to win.
To guide his players to better behavior, Pitino introduced a program called Gopher Pride. He brought in speakers like former players John Thomas and Walter Bond; human resources people from Target, advising about what makes a player employable after college; and a woman who counsels control over emotions, whom Pitino describes as “awesome.”
But it likely matters more that this year’s roster includes a pair of 4-star recruits in Hopkins native Amir Coffey and Eric Curry of Arkansas, plus 3-star player Michael Hurt of Rochester. Scouting services have pegged it the fifth best freshman class in the Big 10.
For 2017, Pitino has already received a commitment from 4-star point guard Isaiah Washington from the Bronx, and 3-star shooting guard Jamir Harris of Elizabeth, New Jersey.
As Pitino sees it, they are joining a decent core that went through fire last season. “You look at Jordan Murphy, he was an All-Freshman player [in the Big 10 last season], and he is only going to get better. Nate Mason played a lot the first two years. Dupree McBrayer is only going to get better.”
He lauds guard Akeem Springs, a transfer from Milwaukee, as a natural leader. Coffey, son of former Gopher forward Richard Coffey, checks the boxes of both local recruit and national-caliber talent.
And if it doesn’t work out? That’s when his beefed-up buyout comes in handy.
Pitino’s new contract stipulates that it will cost “only” $5.4 million to fire him after this season, down from $7.1 million a year ago.
To put this in perspective, total ticket sales for 2015 were $5.1 million. Meanwhile, Gopher football coach Tracy Claeys’ contract calls for a $500,000 buyout.
Given the terms, one would imagine that if Pitino can elevate his team to a semblance of mediocrity — say, a record flirting with .500 — he might get a chance to see how his hotshot recruits pan out under his leadership.
“Mediocrity or bust” is not exactly a moving battle cry. But for Richard Pitino, it represents the underwhelming and uncertain terms of his future. Don’t take it personally.
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