MINNEAPOLIS — Whether it was played with a sense of humor or if the timing was simply ironic, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” blared on the loudspeakers at Williams Arena just minutes before Richard Pitino was introduced as the next Gophers basketball coach.
I couldn’t help but laugh at the timing of the song. Pitino was clearly not Minnesota’s first choice to replace Tubby Smith and wasn’t on many people’s radars when the job opened. The Gophers reportedly were interested in the likes of VCU’s Shaka Smart, Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg and former Gophers guard and NBA coach Flip Saunders.
Indeed, as the song indicated, Minnesota did not get the first, second or third choice it wanted.
What the Gophers did get is a young coach (he’s just 30 years old) with limited experience (one year at the helm of Florida International is the only head coaching gig on his resume). But if you listened to Pitino speak on Friday, you would never have known either of those.
As he addressed the media, fans, boosters, the pep band and even Goldy Gopher on Friday morning at Williams Arean, Pitino came across as polished and poised. He answered every question as if he knew everything that might be asked of him. He talked about how thrilled he was at the opportunity, how coaching the Gophers was a dream come true, and how he hoped to stay at Minnesota for his entire career.
Take all of that with a grain of salt, of course, but Pitino did genuinely sound excited to be in Minnesota. After just one year at FIU, Pitino said he didn’t have any other offers on the table and would have gone back to coaching the Golden Panthers next season. So when the Gophers approached him about replacing Smith, he jumped at the opportunity to coach in the Big Ten. Whether or not he plans to stay here for his career is a different story. He downplayed the notion that Minnesota might be the next stepping stone to a bigger, better job, just like FIU was for him before taking this job.
“This is absolutely the place I want to be,” Pitino said. “I think this is one of the top basketball jobs in the country.”
I said it when the initial deal was announced that I believe this could prove to be a solid hire for the Gophers, and my belief was reaffirmed after hearing Pitino speak on Friday. He has a bit of a salesman in him as he talked about all the selling points Minnesota has to offer to potential recruits: the historic, albeit dated, Williams Arena; great academics; a strong fan base; the advantage of playing in the Big Ten, arguably the best conference in college basketball.
Whether or not Pitino can sell himself and the university to recruits will be a big reason for his success (or failure) with the Gophers. There are currently three top-tier recruits in the state of Minnesota in Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis. Pitino was asked about recruiting but couldn’t talk about specific recruits due to NCAA regulations. Smith developed relationships with all three recruits and has been following Jones — arguably the top recruit of this year’s junior class — since his first varsity practice as an eighth grader.
Pitino now has his work cut out for him to try to quickly establish a connection with those three, as well as other recruits across the country. He seemed to already make an impression on this year’s roster, the players who will be here next season. The Gophers were all in attendance Friday to welcome their new coach and spoke highly of Pitino.
While athletic director Norwood Teague said Friday that Pitino was always on the Gophers’ list, many doubt that was really the case. Minnesota went after the bigger names like Smart, Hoiberg and Flip, and who can blame Teague for doing so? But when those three opted to either stay at their schools (Smart and Hoiberg) or reportedly turned the job down (Saunders), Minnesota had to look elsewhere.
The Gophers are hoping Mick Jagger is right. After trying, they just might find they got what they need.