MIAMI (AP) — Richard Pitino did everything Florida International wanted for the last year.
That is, except stick around a while longer.
The Panthers’ search for their next basketball coach is already under way, with Pitino now at Minnesota after going 18-14 — far better than most anyone expected — in his one season at FIU. Pitino, the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, accepted the job offer from the Gophers on Wednesday, and on Thursday, FIU was already in the process of finding his replacement.
“Richard delivered on everything he promised he would,” FIU director of sports and entertainment Pete Garcia said Thursday. “He delivered quicker than I think even he himself thought he would. The job he did here was amazing. It has proven to myself, to President (Mark) Rosenberg, to the trustees and the administration, that FIU could be relevant in basketball. And he got us on the map.”
Garcia could not have been more effusive in his praise for Pitino on Thursday, not in any way sounding upset that the coach departed two weeks shy of what would have been his 1-year anniversary at the school.
“He did everything I could ask of him,” Garcia said. “Am I disappointed that he leaves? Absolutely. I’m very disappointed that he left. Am I happy for him? I’m thrilled for him.”
Garcia began getting an idea that better, and better-paying, jobs might be offered to Pitino late this season, when it became obvious that FIU would be posting its first winning record since the 1999-2000 campaign. In the two seasons before Pitino arrived, FIU went 19-40 under Basketball Hall of Fame player Isiah Thomas.
Pitino’s contract with Minnesota has not been finalized and released, though whatever money he makes there will dwarf the $250,000 annual base salary he agreed to when he accepted the job at FIU.
“Minnesota has just landed a great basketball coach,” Garcia said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that what he’ll do at Minnesota is the same thing he did here at FIU. This guy is a complete package as far as coach, a leader of men. He does everything the right way. He got these kids to go to class, get good grades, be involved in the community. He was hard on them, but they respected him.”
The Pitino family also raved about the way Garcia was gracious about the early departure.
“Pete Garcia was awesome,” said Rick Pitino, whose Cardinals will play in the Final Four this weekend in Atlanta. “He just said, `Richard, you need to go. It’s been too short but you need to go. That’s a Big Ten job. We’re proud of what you’ve gotten started for us and we’re going to lean on you, Richard, to help us get the new coach.’ He was great and I was really appreciative of that as well.”
Finding the next FIU coach may not be overly simple.
The Panthers have a style that Garcia likes now, with Pitino’s pressing defense and up-tempo offense, but they may be facing major academic hurdles that the school says were created during the Thomas tenure.
FIU is in some trouble with its Academic Progress Rate score and could face a postseason ban next year, much like Connecticut did this season. The APR measures whether student athletes have remained in school and academically eligible for competition.
Garcia called a potential ban “a very real possibility.”
“When I hired coach Pitino he was aware of that. Whoever I hire now, I’m going to be up-front with them and I’m going to tell them there could be some APR repercussions for next season,” Garcia said. “But I’m going to be very clear: Richard inherited that and Richard did a tremendous job of doing everything he could to fix that going forward. He’s leaving us in a lot better shape than we ever imagined.”
Garcia did say he would rely on the Pitinos, Florida’s Billy Donovan, Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and others to help find the next coach, a process that FIU is aiming to complete in 10 days or less.
FIU will play Louisville again next season as scheduled, and Garcia said there is a chance the Panthers may play Minnesota.
“I will root for him,” Garcia said. “Unless we play each other.”