Opinion: Rick Pitino proves he’s worth the controversy, deserves another shot to coach major program
Two years ago, I wrote a column that UCLA should hire Rick Pitino, who at the time was in the middle of his Grecian exile, practically begging to be considered for any decent college job.
Since then, a bunch more schools fired their coaches but shrugged aside any temptation to bring Pitino on board, figuring he wasn’t worth the controversy.
Guess what? He absolutely is.
Iona’s gamble on Pitino paid off in a major way Saturday as the Gaels clinched an NCAA Tournament bid by beating Fairfield, 60-51. Despite a regular season wrecked by COVID-19, Iona got healthy enough for the MAAC tournament, played its best basketball when it mattered most and proved there's still plenty of juice left in Pitino at age 68.
The Gaels’ stay in the NCAA Tournament probably won’t last long. They’ll likely end up being a No. 15 seed, a No. 14 at best. But if you’re Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Alabama or any of these other teams projected on the No. 2 line, is there any scarier draw than a coach with seven Final Fours on his résumé?
In a sense, it doesn’t really matter. For Iona, the decision to hire Pitino has already paid off. The question now is whether Pitino has redeemed himself enough this season for a bigger school to give him one last chance at a place where he can be nationally relevant once again.
If any of these athletics directors about to be looking for a coach are smart, they absolutely should.
Look, there’s no doubt Pitino has baggage. Lots of it, from the Karen Sypher fiasco to Strippergate to the end of his time at Louisville when the FBI uncovered that recruit Brian Bowen’s father was getting paid by an Adidas executive to play for Pitino.
These are all very public, very embarrassing stories that will be brought up alongside Pitino’s name from now until the end of time. Any school that hires him will have to endure some bad publicity and trot out the school president to dodge questions about why their respected institution would entrust such a morally compromised person with their basketball program.
The answer is very clear: Because Pitino is among the best who’s ever done it.
Iona coach Rick Pitino spent three years in purgatory before the Gaels gave him an opportunity to return to Division I men's basketball. (Photo: Matt Slocum, AP)
Iona is the fifth school Pitino has taken to the Tournament, turning around a team that went 12-17 last year. This isn’t an anomaly. At every stop in his career, whether he’s coaching the best talent in the country or scrappy underachievers, he institutes a specific style of play, raises the level of a team’s fitness and demands an intensity that will translate to wins.
There’s no point in making excuses for any of the failures in Pitino’s past. I have never believed he knew about or endorsed the stripper parties for players and recruits that led to NCAA sanctions, but I have no problem holding him responsible for hiring scummy assistant coaches and failing to ask enough questions about what they were up to.
As far as the Adidas scandal, once again, nothing has ever come out to suggest Pitino knew about what was happening with Bowen. In fact, some of the testimony from the federal trial was exculpatory. But Bowen is a player who signed with Louisville late, with very minimal effort in recruiting. Pitino admitted the kid fell into his lap. He should have known it was too good to be legitimate.
And, when it’s all said and done, Pitino is likely to serve some kind of suspension for a Level 2 violation for failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance, which the NCAA charged him with as part of Louisville’s ongoing infractions case.
Still, it’s all worth it.
If Pitino stays at Iona, whether by choice or others' lack of interest, he’s going to build a team that can win an NCAA Tournament game and maybe even make a Sweet 16. That’s a given. If a school in a major conference with actual resources and recruiting reach took the leap, they’d have a chance to get to a Final Four.
In a sport where everybody gets a second chance and moral high ground is only impressive until the first loss, of course that’s worth it.
Until Iona called, Pitino couldn’t get any traction for college jobs. It seemed possible he’d fade away, never to return. After this season, though, we can safely say Pitino is back. And all those schools that missed the boat should probably regret it.
Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
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