June 16, 2024

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With his name cleared, Rick Pitino must make a choice to stay at Iona or take one more shot at a big-time job

With his name cleared, Rick Pitino must make a choice to stay at Iona or take one more shot at a big-time job

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — Here’s Rick Pitino, in the same situation he’s been a thousand-plus times in his life: a locker room, with his team, going over the ingredients required to snare a win.

Pitino is the center of attention in most rooms he occupies. At this moment, an exception. We’re less than an hour before Iona’s home tip against bitter rival Manhattan, and as Pitino takes a minute to sit, Gaels assistant Taliek Brown commands all ears. Brown has the offensive scout for this game against the Jaspers and he’s telling players their last-minute need-to-knows. His drill-sergeant tone pounds off the walls of the recently renovated locker room, one of many upgrades Pitino stipulated needed to happen upon his taking the Iona job almost three years ago. 

A flatscreen TV is affixed to the back wall. Brown’s running through video on the Jaspers’ tendencies. 

Pitino can’t help himself, nor does he have to — he’s the damn head coach.

“Now, he had a good game against us at Manhattan,” Pitino interrupts about one player.

“NOT TODAY,” Brown immediately booms back about said Jasper. “We shuttin’ that down.”

For a beat, the room goes silent. 

Then everyone lets out a laugh. Pitino’s in the corner, cracking up. It’s not all business; this is fun. Pitino has found something here. At 70, he’s discovered joy and reinvention in a place nobody, least of all Pitino, ever thought he’d be. Back where he started. New York. Pitino, now in his 47th year of coaching, grew up on Long Island and, of course, spent time as an assistant and head coach in the ’80s with the Knicks. More than three decades later, he’s in his third year at Iona and has once again guided the Gaels to a good season that could wind up with a second NCAA Tournament appearance on his watch.

“The crowd is going to be big, don’t play for the great crowd, play for each other,” Pitino tells the team minutes before tipoff. “Don’t try to make the spectacular play — play for each other. It’ll happen naturally. You’ll make great plays that way.” 

Over the next two hours, the Gaels shut down Manhattan and win 71-60. Ten minutes after the game, Pitino’s acquired a celebratory drink in a red Solo Cup and he has a phone propped up on the desk of his second-floor office. He’s momentarily pushing back his postgame media responsibilities because Rider, the team Iona’s vying with atop the MAAC, is in a stunning one-possession game late against six-win Canisius. Rider winds up losing. 

Two days later, Rider will lose again. Iona will not. The Gaels (20-7) win at Saint Peter’s, lifting them two games up in the conference race (13-3) with 13 days to go, firmly tracking them to a second straight regular-season title. It’s the third straight year Iona will claim a league crown; it won the MAAC Tournament in Pitino’s first season, then won the league last season by three games. 

“I’ve been doing this for 45 years,” Pitino says, “and I’m more excited about doing it now than I was even when I was 40, because I know it’s not going to go on forever.” 

Pitino’s won 73{18875d16fb0f706a77d6d07e16021550e0abfa6771e72d372d5d32476b7d07ec} of his games at Iona, a stellar number at any level, but especially for a MAAC school. He could easily ride out his career in New Rochelle and probably raise this program’s national profile even more — to one of basketball’s best mid-majors.

But will he? 

Pitino, who says he has no desire to retire in the next few seasons, granted CBS Sports access to his program and provided updates on his future ahead of what’s sure to be an interesting coaching carousel in March. 

“I want to coach five or six more years,” he said. “I still exercise like a demon. I still get after it. And as long as you do that, your mind is sharp, I’m still more passionate about it today than I’ve ever been in my life. And again, it’s because I know my window’s closing. I want to do something special, whether it’s at Iona or it doesn’t matter. I want to do something special, and I think we are doing something special.” 

Big jobs are expected to open. Georgetown is a prime candidate; if ever that program needed an injection of coaching credibility, Pitino’s more qualified than any candidate, and he knows it. There are others as well. Curiosities linger about St. John’s, in addition to other high-majors that will inevitably have vacancies. This puts Pitino in a position of strength and some leverage — something he hasn’t had for most of the past decade.

In early November, four days before the season began, Pitino was cleared by the Independent Review Panel of the Independent Accountability Resolution Process. The IRP determined “no violation by [Pitino] occurred given that he demonstrated he promoted an atmosphere of compliance” in Louisville’s NCAA case (tied to the FBI’s investigation of bribery and corruption in college basketball).

Pitino has been controversial dating back to his infamous tryst-turned-extortion saga, which came to light in 2009; 2017 was when his image turned toxic in college circles. A triumvirate of scandals over an eight-year span at Louisville led to his ouster. He spent a couple of years coaching in Greece before Iona’s president, Seamus Carey, flew across the Atlantic Ocean in March 2020, days before the pandemic shut down the world. Carey met Pitino in Madrid and convinced him to take the Iona job as the two imbibed at a small Irish pub.  

Pitino prepares his team prior to Iona’s home game vs. Manhattan.
Matt Norlander

Carey took a chance at a time when many in college athletics wouldn’t think of considering hiring Pitino, a fact Pitino clearly keeps at front of mind. 

“It would have to be someplace really, really special with the type of president that I have here,” Pitino said of leaving Iona. “Now, it’s easy. I got exonerated by the NCAA, they said you didn’t do anything, now it’s easy to hire me. But Seamus Carey didn’t have that guarantee.” 

He’s still a controversial figure for some in college sports, but not nearly the lot that existed as recently as six months ago. From an X-and-O standpoint, there is no case against him. Pitino is regarded as one of the sharpest minds in college basketball history.

Pitino says, in some ways, he’s never worked harder. Iona’s compact campus is an eight-minute drive from his home on the revered grounds of Winged Foot Golf Club. He still gets to the gym before 8 a.m. most days and does individual workouts with his bigs, then the wings, then the guards. Minimal commute time has been huge for his productivity, which includes near-weekly fundraising. Nearly $2 million has been raised to overhaul Iona’s athletic facilities and offices; Pitino said one part of his office alone cost $200,000 to update, and added that he’s personally raised around half of the kitty since taking the job — with $400,000-$500,000 coming from friends in Kentucky.

It’s an impressive number for a university with an enrollment under 3,700, which amounts to just 31{18875d16fb0f706a77d6d07e16021550e0abfa6771e72d372d5d32476b7d07ec} of the average enrollment (11,783) for a Division I institution. 

“We probably break even if we’re lucky, financially,” Pitino said. 

Iona has sold out a majority of its home games the past two seasons. The Gaels play in a cozy on-campus arena that holds fewer than 2,700 and is mostly bleacher seating. Witnessing this Hall of Famer strut, stomp and stalk about a glorified high school gymnasium in his tailored blazer and tan Gucci loafers is a peculiar sight. 

Many MAAC facilities are no-frills, if not outdated. Pitino said there are multiple places where there is no coaches’ dressing room — it’s merely the bathroom adjacent to the locker room. The MAAC is largely a bus league, with its footprint almost entirely in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. 

“I enjoy that aspect of riding the bus and getting back,” Pitino said, noting that frequent commercial travel would be worse on his body. 

He sounds like a man content. But is he a man 100{18875d16fb0f706a77d6d07e16021550e0abfa6771e72d372d5d32476b7d07ec} determined to coach his last game at Iona? No.

“I was offered three really good jobs last year,” Pitino said. “But I told the one job, it was a big-time job, I said, ‘Look, I’ve got a $5 million buyout. I had $10 million prior to that. I’m not worth that.'”

Sources told CBS Sports the job Pitino is alluding to is Maryland. (Update: a source re-confirmed that Maryland reached out to Pitino, but clarified that contact did not lead to a job offer.) Maryland hired Kevin Willard — a former Iona coach and someone in Pitino’s circle. (Holy Cross and Rhode Island also inquired.) Pitino’s buyout and his uncertain NCAA situation made him ungettable for most ADs even willing to entertain the fantasy. That’s no longer the case. In the offseason, Pitino went to Carey and had his buyout taken down to $0, making him easier to pluck. He’s in the third year of his initial five-year contract.

“I have no idea what the answer is about where I’ll be or what I’ll do,” Pitino said. “I know I love the place. I know I’m eight minutes away. I know I love Winged Foot. … I do know that there’s certain places and there’s 20 or 30 states where I don’t want to live.”

Many of those states are covered by Big Ten country, a conference Pitino said he’d never work in after his son, Richard, was fired by one of the league’s schools (Minnesota). With no eagerness to leave New Rochelle, Pitino will be picky if schools come calling. 

“Where I lived wasn’t important in the past, and now it is,” he said.

Over the course of a 30-minute interview, Pitino fluctuated between loyalty to Iona and openness to one more big challenge. That openness is obvious and understandable. This is Rick Pitino after all: a carnivorous competitor of the hardwood. A bona fide basketball lifer, someone who was willing to move to Greece just to keep his clasp on a whiteboard. It’s all too fathomable if his desires for one more shot at the high-major level wind up changing his mind in the next few weeks or next year or the year after. 

“We’ve accomplished what we set out to do,” Pitino said of his time so far at Iona. “If I wanted to leave, it would be a job that I thought could get to a Final Four. It would be a great place where I want to live, but I don’t see it happening. I don’t see it happening. I’m really tied into these kids. And they came because of me.”

Pitino coached twice in the NBA, twice at the blue-blood level with Kentucky and Louisville, he’s been in the EuroLeague and at Providence and as far out as Hawaii, where his coaching path was forged almost 50 years ago. He’s left jobs under unexpected circumstances, anticipated circumstances, regrettable circumstances, infuriating circumstances and joyful circumstances. 

He could leave Iona, too, but at the cost of something — the unknown of what awaits at the next job — that doesn’t appeal to him like it once did.

“I know everybody here. I know what they are,” he said. “I don’t need money. I don’t need fame. I don’t need to move up the ladder of success. So, I know what I have. I know the devil here. Sometimes people don’t know the devil.”

If he does go, one catalyzing factor is the delicate nature that comes with coaching in March in the MAAC. 

“The only thing I don’t like about the whole situation,” says Pitino, “I hate being in a one-bid league.”

Iona won the MAAC by three games last season. What was good for the MAAC in the long run (Saint Peter’s making the Elite Eight) was bad for Iona. With a new commissioner in charge, Pitino also wants the league tournament out of Atlantic City (attendance has suffered greatly). The Gaels are 20-7 despite what Pitino said is the worst injury situation he’s ever dealt with as a head coach. Iona’s made 15 NCAA Tournament appearances, the most of any without an official win (the NCAA vacated the school’s lone victory under Jim Valvano in 1980). He wants to get this school into the tournament and win a game, minimally.

If it happens this year, it will likely turn him into the biggest name on the coaching carousel. Should that happen, Pitino won’t be able to stop his mind from transporting back to March 2020, when he was inside that pub in Madrid. 

“I never had to explain myself,” he said. “And if there was another school like that, that did the same thing that Seamus Carey did, I possibly would consider it. Possibly. But I doubt I would leave.”

That settles it, right? Not exactly. Pitino knows where all the doors are. Stay with him long enough and you’ll notice how he keeps them all ajar. 

“Every coach that comes here has won,” he said of Iona. “From (Jimmy) V to Willard to everybody. Timmy Welsh, Tim Cluess, you name it. They all won. If I left tomorrow, this is still going to be a big-time winning program.”

Sounds like a man who knows exactly what he’s doing.