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Richard Pitino at the U: ‘It’s going to be a great brand of basketball’

On Friday the young Pitino talked up the virtues of The Barn, the quality of the university, and the passion of Gopher fans.

Richard Pitino at Friday's press conference: “I think the sky’s the limit for this place, I really do.”
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband

Maybe it was a joke. Maybe it wasn’t. But it sure was funny, and it might have been the frankest thing Richard Pitino said at his introductory press conference/pep rally at Williams Arena on Friday morning.

The 30-year-old Pitino recounted the brief conversation he had with his father, Louisville Coach Rick Pitino, after Minnesota Athletic Director Norwood Teague contacted him about leaving Florida International University to succeed Tubby Smith as men’s basketball coach.

“It wasn’t really a long conversation,” Pitino said. “I think he said, `Are you crazy?’ That was really the end of it. We didn’t really talk much. The fact that I had this opportunity, there wasn’t much thinking.”

Understand the dynamics here. Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith are pals; Smith worked on Pitino’s staff at Kentucky and succeeded him in 1997 when Pitino left to coach the Boston Celtics. Smith coached the Gophers to three NCAA Tournaments and two National Invitation Tournaments in six seasons and still got fired. Smith remains popular among his coaching colleagues, and outside of Minnesota is widely considered to have done a commendable job with a program that has been on NCAA probation five times since 1976 and never won a national championship.

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The team plays in one of the oldest arenas in the country, the university can’t find a lead donor for a practice facility, and the state produces more Olympic-caliber curlers than Division 1 basketball players. Oh, and most people whose knowledge of Minnesota begins and ends with The Mary Tyler Moore Show think it’s like Antarctica here nine months a year. Who would want this job?

The kid who overlooked all that and took it anyway.

Richard Pitino sounds and looks a lot like the old man, from the Long Island inflection in his voice to the hair swept back from his forehead. The best coaches need to be great salesmen, and Friday morning the young Pitino repeatedly talked up the virtues of The Barn, the quality of the university, and the passion of Gopher fans in a way that sounded genuine, not Tim Brewster-esque.

Went over well

It played well with the several hundred boosters, athletic department employees and fans who showed up and applauded Pitino and Teague at several points. Instead of whining about what the U lacks, he promised to work with what it has.

“I think the sky’s the limit for this place, I really do,” Pitino said. “You’ve got to do a great job with recruiting. It always starts with that. You’re playing in the best conference in college basketball, and you’re going to school at one of the best universities. We’ve got a lot to sell. We’ve got plenty to sell, including a great degree, great experience in college, and playing on a big stage.”

This is exactly what Minnesota needed – an energetic, charismatic guy who knows what he’s doing. Without a practice facility and a more recent tradition of success, Teague had no shot at recognizable names like Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart or Anthony Grant of Alabama.

(If you’ve been in the $13 million Al McGuire Center at Marquette, a spectacular facility that includes a 4,000-seat arena for women’s basketball and volleyball plus a men’s practice center, you would understand how ridiculous the rumors about Buzz Williams coming here were. Teague had a better chance getting Pope Francis to skate with the hockey team.)

Contract details released

In a surprise, the U released details of Pitino’s six-year contract this morning. He will be paid $1.2 million per year, about $765,000 less than Smith, plus bonuses for reaching certain performance and academic goals. So there is room to extend and reward Pitino if he succeeds quickly. If Pitino leaves before April 30, 2016, he owes the school $1.5 million.

Watch Louisville in the Final Four on Saturday, and you’ll see how Minnesota will play under Pitino, with lots of full-court pressure and fast-break points in transition.

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It’s the style a young Rick Pitino employed to take Providence to the Final Four in 1987 with a kid named Billy Donovan hoisting 3-pointers. It’s the style Donovan employed to win back-to-back national championships at Florida in 2006 and ’07. And it’s the style Richard Pitino won with last season in his head coaching debut at Florida International, a nondescript former Division II school in Miami best known as the place Isiah Thomas landed after being fired by the Knicks.

With three returning scholarship players and eight newcomers, four of them junior college transfers, Pitino ran and pressed his way to an 18-14 record, the school’s first winning season since 1999-2000 and the most victories since 21 in 1997-98. (Thomas, the NBA great, was 26-65 in three seasons.) FIU scored 29 percent of its points off turnovers, comparable to Louisville’s 31 percent. It lost the Sun Belt Conference tournament final and an automatic NCAA bid by two points to Western Kentucky, the team that led top-seeded Kansas at halftime of their second-round regional game before losing.

‘Our style of play is going to be fun to watch’

“Our style of play is going to be fun to watch. I think you guys are going to enjoy it,” Pitino said. “We’re going to press on every possession after every make. We’re going to try to create offense for our defense. It’s going to be a style the kids love to play. It’s going to be something where we put a lot of stock in conditioning, being physically in shape and as well mentally in shape. It’s going to be a great brand of basketball.”

Pitino can’t make wholesale personnel changes unless some players transfer. He has three scholarships available after guard Alvin Ellis of Chicago asked out of his letter of intent. Pitino said the right things about establishing contacts with basketball coaches in Minnesota, but this is not an area where he, his father or Donovan recruited heavily. Expect an influx of players from the Northeast and Florida.

Guards Andre and Austin Hollins should fit Pitino’s style. Though Andre Hollins has been a loyal Tubby guy, even visiting him the day after the firing, he couldn’t stop smiling at the thought of playing in Pitino’s system.

Teague kept the players in the dark during the transition, though, so Hollins had some anxiety. He felt better after contacting two friends from Tennessee whom Pitino recruited, forward Casey Prather of Florida and incoming Louisville guard Chris Jones, for insight.

“It was weird. I was telling people it’s kind of like being at home, having your parents leave and having a new set of parents coming in,” he said.“It’s exciting now. Coach Smith gave us a good foundation. Now we have to build on top of that with Coach Pitino.”