MINNEAPOLIS — As the coaching search dragged on, past the one-week mark, Gophers basketball fans started to get restless. They had hoped it wouldn’t take this long to find the replacement for Tubby Smith, who wore out his welcome in Minnesota and eventually was fired last Monday.
During that time, several potential candidates were brought up. That included Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, both of whom received contract extensions amid the Gophers’ pursuits. They were two names that Minnesota fans would have loved to see take over for Smith, but both turned down the advances and were content at their current jobs.
Enter Flip Saunders, who was reportedly offered the Gophers job but turned it down. Saunders played college basketball at Minnesota and later coached the Minnesota Timberwolves, among other NBA teams. Fans seemed frustrated when Saunders turned down the job, forcing athletic director Norwood Teague to continue the coaching search.
On Wednesday, that search finally came to an end when the school announced that Florida International coach Richard Pitino agreed to become the 17th head basketball coach at the University of Minnesota. He was a name that likely wasn’t on many — or any — people’s radars when the coaching search began, but that doesn’t make it a bad hire.
For starters, he has the pedigree. It’s already been well-documented that Richard Pitino is the son of Rick Pitino, who has led Louisville to the Final Four this season. The elder Pitino also has an NCAA championship on his resume from his time at Kentucky and has taken teams to the NCAA tournament 18 times, including six Final Fours. While that doesn’t necessarily mean his son will have the same success, it can’t hurt to have a dad with that type of coaching acumen. And the younger Pitino learned from his father while serving as an assistant coach at Louisville for three seasons.
At just 30 years old, Pitino is 31 years younger than the 61-year-old Smith. To put it into perspective, Smith was an assistant coach at VCU before Pitino was born. And if Pitino were coaching this year’s Gophers team, he would have been just six years older than Minnesota’s sixth-year senior Trevor Mbakwe.
Pitino’s age doesn’t necessarily have to work against him, however. There can be advantages to hiring a young head coach, even in a Big Ten Conference that has established coaches such as Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan and Tom Crean. At 30, Pitino is easily the youngest coach in the Big Ten. Northwestern recently hired 38-year-old Chris Collins as its next coach, making Collins the second-youngest after Pitino.
A young coach might have an easier time relating to college-age kids. Take the previously mentioned Smart, for example. He’s 35 and was just 33 when he led VCU to the Final Four in 2011. He was then viewed as an up-and-coming coach and has had his name brought up in coaching vacancy rumors — including Minnesota. In Smith’s case, he was more than four decades older than most of his players, which can certainly cause a disconnect between teacher and pupil.
What’s to say Pitino can’t inject some youthful exuberance into the Gophers program? It may also help him connect with recruits, and Minnesota has its eyes on plenty of in-state products, including Apple Valley point guard Tyus Jones, among others. Whether Pitino can land any of them remains to be seen, but he has plenty of experience as a recruiter while an assistant coach at Louisville and several other schools.
It would be easy to point towards Pitino’s lack of experience as his biggest strike. After replacing Isiah Thomas at FIU, Pitino was at the helm for just one year before taking the Gophers job but led his team to an 18-14 overall record and an 11-9 mark in the Sun Belt Conference. One year earlier, the Golden Panthers were a dismal 8-21 overall and 5-11 in conference play. It may be a small sample size to judge, but Pitino helped turn things around in just one year at FIU.
On the surface, it’s not a bad hire for Minnesota. It’s not the big name that fans might have been hoping for, but they should put their trust in Teague and associate AD Mike Ellis, who fashion themselves as basketball guys.
After all, they were the ones that hired the previously unknown Smart at VCU, and that seemed to work out OK.