MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino’s fourth year as the coach at Minnesota has come with significant pressure to pull up the floundering men’s basketball program from the bottom of the Big Ten and help put an end to the off-the-court problems.
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With the university president publicly expressing concern about Gophers players repeatedly getting in trouble, Pitino has begun a make-or-break season. Minutes after his first meeting with just-hired athletic director Mark Coyle on Thursday, Pitino sat down in his office for an interview with The Associated Press about his status and the state of the team.
"Obviously he’s coming in at a time when I’m not the most popular guy right now, and I understand that," Pitino said of Coyle, who arrives from Syracuse. "But I’ve got to show him my vision. I’ve got to show him what I believe we’re all about. I’ve got to also show him what we need to do differently and how we can do it and make sure people are proud of the product on the court as well as off the court."
Not only did the Gophers finish with an 8-23 record, but guards Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason and Dupree McBrayer were suspended for the final four games after a sex video appeared briefly on Dorsey’s social media accounts. Dorsey has left the program with the intent to transfer. Mason and McBrayer were reinstated.
Then center Reggie Lynch was jailed this week on suspicion of criminal sexual conduct. He was released without charges filed, but the investigation is ongoing.
University President Eric Kaler, not yet halfway into his opening remarks at Coyle’s introductory news conference on Wednesday, singled out the team.
"Frankly, this has been a tough week and a tough couple of months for our men’s basketball program. I’m profoundly disappointed in the continuing episodes, poor judgment, alleged crimes, and it simply can’t continue," Kaler said. "Mark is aware of my concerns and wherever he’s been, Mark’s commitment to integrity is unquestioned. I expect him to set a high bar and make sure this department makes news for winning Big Ten and national titles, and producing admirable and successful student athletes, and not for unacceptable behavior by anyone in the department."
Pitino said he wasn’t surprised by Kaler’s reaction.
"When you win eight games and you have some off-the-court issues, that responsibility lies on me. It doesn’t lie on anybody else. So we’ve got to get it right," Pitino said. "I certainly understand where he’s coming from."
Thanks to an extension and raise granted last year by previous athletic director Norwood Teague, Pitino’s buyout ballooned to $7 million if he were to be fired this offseason. Coyle sounded prepared to play the good cop role in evaluating the coaches he’s now in charge of, including Pitino.
"It’s my job to come in, take a look at it and create accountability," Coyle said, later adding: "I think I’m patient. No matter what coach you’re looking at or what program you’re looking at, I think it’s important that you understand everything around that program."
Teague also permitted private jet usage overages for Pitino, who according to a university audit revealed this week spent $325,000 on such travel for recruiting between 2013-16. The coach’s contract only budgeted $150,000 for that period.
"Everything that we did was approved, so we never felt like we were doing anything wrong," Pitino said. "And if there are things that we need to do differently to get better, we’ll do them."
Pitino said there has been extra communication between him and his players recently with regard to off-the-court behavior. He said his staff has been making arrangements to advise the team in that area.
"That’s priority number one, making sure our guys are educated properly and understand what’s at stake and what’s expected of them," Pitino said.