After a couple of years away, Pitino is back home looking to build Iona into a consistent winner at the highest level
New York City native Rick Pitino, 68, is back in the metro area as the new head coach at Iona College. The two-time national championship winner at Kentucky (1996) and Louisville (2013) most recently coached in Greece at EuroLeague powerhouse Panathinaikos. Pitino returns to the college game following an unceremonious 2017 exit from Louisville, which included a recruiting sex scandal that resulted in NCAA sanctions and the vacating of the Cardinals' 2013 title.
Athlon Sports caught up with Pitino, who aims to lead the Gaels to the top of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and beyond.
Q&A with Iona head coach Rick Pitino
What attracted you to Iona?
I think if Iona were located in North Carolina or Pennsylvania or Connecticut or any place other than New York, where I grew up, I probably would not have taken the job. I would've stayed coaching professionally in the EuroLeague. The reason I took the job was to come home, where it all started for me. It wasn't anything other than that. It was a small Catholic school that I wanted to build into something special.
The other thing I looked at — and Dick Vitale told me this and it meant a lot — is that every single coach that has coached at Iona has had great success. But much more important than that, every single coach loved the place they worked. Jim Valvano said Iona was the best years of his life. Timmy Welsh said that. (Tim) Cluess, who I just replaced. Pat Kennedy. They all loved coaching at Iona.
Is Iona your last stop?
My buyout is so absurd. My buyout at Louisville and Kentucky was like half-a-million and it goes down to $100,000 in five years. My buyout at Iona is $10 million, $10 million, $5 million, $2 million, $2 million. I said to the president, "I told you this was my last job. What kind of a thing is that?" And he said to me, "Coach, I trust you implicitly." And I said, "Well why would you put such a ridiculous buyout in there?" And he says, "Well, I trust you. But nobody on the board of trustees thinks you're going to stay." I didn't mind at all. I know it's my last job.
How have you dealt with being hired during a pandemic?
Well, I signed the most players I've ever signed in a season — eight. Four from foreign soil. And it was all done by computer, on Zoom calls. It was the most different and unique situation I've ever been in in my life. But I'm sure every other coach would say the same.
Are you building an international pipeline to Iona?
I look at small, Catholic schools that are very successful. Obviously, everybody talks about Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. One of the reasons why they're so highly successful is because of the foreign influence in their colleges. They have recruited Australia. They have recruited Europe and Serbia and places like that.
It's essential for Iona. Foreign players really get excited about going to New York City. They've heard so much about it and they want to come. So that's going to be a major asset for us. Right now we have a player from the Netherlands, a senior, Dylan van Eyck. We have young men from Germany, Sweden, Nigeria, and Rwanda.
Stylistically, are you still recruiting the same type of player?
Very much so. Four of the eight players I signed for Iona I would've recruited for Louisville. I'm looking for obviously athletic people who have good potential to shoot the basketball with range, play hard and have what I call a "PhD Attitude" — a passionate, hungry, and driven attitude to achieve their goals.
What are your long-term goals?
No different than Providence, Louisville, Kentucky, or Boston University, wherever I've worked. To take the program to the highest level it can possibly achieve through hard work, great recruiting, great scouting, and obviously meticulous player development.
It seems inevitable that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will match up Iona with Kentucky or Louisville. Is that something you would enjoy?
I would just be happy to be in the NCAA Tournament, playing anyone. I will tell you right now, when they put Louisville versus my son (Richard) and Minnesota and then came out and said, "Oh, it had no bearing on our selection," I think that's insulting to the intelligence of any human being, when they do that. If they say it's a good storyline, so be it. We'll play anybody. But I certainly have great respect for Siena and Manhattan and Monmouth and all the other (MAAC) teams that could beat us if we're not a better team. So I'm not talking about the NCAA. I'm just trying to build a program right now and make it something special.
Your son, Richard, is a rising star at Minnesota. Did you encourage him to get into coaching?
I actually told Richard, "Look, you do what you want." His mother discouraged him from going into coaching. It's a hard life. You're away from your family a lot. But Richard had the bug. He does it the right way. He's well liked in the business. I'm real proud of him. I told him what Hubie Brown told me once: "Take everything that you really like from me. But everything you don't like, don't take with you." I told Richard the same thing. From scouting, preparation, being meticulously organized, we're very similar. But from a style of play, we're not.
What are your thoughts on "one-and-done" culture and the rise of the G League Select Team and international options for elite recruits?
The problem with the NCAA is that they're very reactive; they're not proactive. Something has to happen for them to react. I wrote in a book (Pitino: My Story) two years ago that the NCAA is going to kill the golden goose if they don't do something about the climate of what's happening in college basketball. And the golden goose is obviously the TV package that reaps billions of dollars from the NCAA Tournament. We've got to be very careful. The one-and-done is going to go away; high school kids are going to be able to go pro again. And then the other thing is kids are going to go to the G League, go to the EuroLeague. They're going to skip it and make six-, seven-, $800,000. And if something's not done about that, who knows what's going to happen?
What specific changes would you like to see instituted by the NCAA?
I would like to see all players have shoe contracts. If the shoe companies are playing such a role in the lives of universities, the individuals should benefit as much as the schools do. If Donovan Mitchell is playing for me at Louisville and he wants to have a shoe contract, he should. They're going to say, "Well, the university has a contract." But if the university is making money, why shouldn't the players make money off shoe deals?
How do you think the NCAA handled your case at Louisville?
The NCAA never comes out and says things, but they complimented me and (former Louisville athletic director) Tom Jurich at the hearing. Said both of us were very honest, very upfront with everything. And the NCAA enforcement staff said that on record, it's in the record. So we appreciated that. What happened at Louisville was reprehensible behavior. But it was only one person that was behind that reprehensible behavior. Common sense tells you that if the NCAA thought I knew anything, they would've suspended me for 10 years. You know how many games I got suspended? Five. I don't need to convince anybody of anything. All they have to do is look at the findings of the NCAA.
Is the NCAA too inconsistent with its punishments?
It's not the NCAA, it's an enforcement staff that brings it to a committee and every committee is different. The committee took away a banner — you can't take away a championship, they took away a banner. It's reprehensible behavior. But what did that behavior have to do with these players winning the NCAA Tournament? It was not steroid use, drug use that made them jump higher, run faster. It was not any financial benefit that they took all this money because the total amount of money over the four-year span on that whole scenario was $5,700. Now was it reprehensible behavior by this one coach? 100 percent. And I'm very disappointed in him. Devastated by it. But what did that have to do with that committee determining a championship? Nothing. And certainly what happened a year before in a dormitory, which again was bad behavior, had nothing to do with their accomplishments on the basketball court. It wasn't an advantage. They didn't have an advantage.
Do you have any behind-the-scenes stories from all the basketball movies — Blue Chips, He Got Game, etc. — you've been in?
My children were in the background of Blue Chips. The other thing about Blue Chips, it was a lot of fun, great flick to watch. But Bobby Knight comes in and it's supposed to be "winter" time (in the movie). He's from Bloomington, with the red sweater. But he's got a tan that's a sunburn tan! In the middle of the winter!
Is there a big-time recruit who "got away" from you?
There's so many of those. So many. You always get involved in recruiting wars. Marquis Teague, who went to Kentucky. I coached his dad (Shawn) and his uncle (John). I thought we had him. And he asked me a question during recruiting, "Am I a one-and-done?" And I said, "Son, I don't make that decision. I can improve your jump shot. I can work with you. But the NBA teams make that decision. I can't make that decision." And then he asked that question of Kentucky and they said, "That's pretty much all we recruit." So he was going to Kentucky and I lost out.
How do you expect this season to unfold, possibly without fans?
I've coached two games this year without fans in Greece. There was an eerie feeling coaching. Every word you say and every word the other coach says you can hear. I don't have a solution for this problem. We can't live in a bubble and spend $150 million like the NBA. You just keep your fingers crossed that there's March Madness and see if the vaccine comes out. And we've got to keep our fingers crossed that athletes and coaches stay safe.
(Photo by Dave Klotz/Louisville Athletics)