ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — It’s a March Madness tradition as predictable as a 12-5 upset.
A successful coach at a small school enters the NCAA Tournament with speculation swirling about being a candidate at a more glamorous school, forcing that coach to dodge questions about his future before the most important games of the season.
The twist this year? That coach is a 70-year-old, two-time national champion whose Hall of Fame four-decade career has been sprinkled with scandal.
“You’re not hired by the internet,” Iona coach Rick Pitino said. “My players, it’s not a distraction for them at all. I’ve always taken it as a compliment throughout all the years that if somebody else is interested in you, very thankful for that, but I never pay attention to it.”
Pitino has the Gaels in the tournament as champions of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference for the second time in his three seasons at the private Catholic school in New Rochelle, just north of New York City.
Iona, a 13 seed, faces fourth-seeded Connecticut from the Big East on Friday in the first round of the West Region. As much as Pitino tries to keep the focus on the Gaels, it seems likely that his time at the school is winding down and he is going to land one more high-profile gig — St. John’s? Georgetown? Texas Tech? — before he calls it quits.
Or rather, if he calls it quits.
“Well, I know when he told me he was going to retire at 60 that he was full of crap,” recently retired Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told The Associated Press. “He’ll coach until he’s 80 if he can. He loves coaching. We all love it to some extent, but I think he loves it probably more than anybody else.”
In 34 full seasons as a college head coach, he has led each of the five schools he has coached to the NCAA Tournament, won national championships at Kentucky and Louisville, and has a .741 winning percentage.
He had two stints in the NBA, one with the New York Knicks, and another with the Boston Celtics that didn’t produce a playoff appearance. But in college, Pitino has had just one losing season.
“Probably the best basketball coach I’ve seen or gone up against,” said Boeheim, who hired Pitino as an assistant at Syracuse in 1976.
Pitino is back in play for the big schools after being exonerated for NCAA recruiting violations committed by Louisville under his watch and revealed by an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption.
A few days before this season started, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, the Independent Accountability Resolutions Process, announced it had found “no violation by (Pitino) occurred given that he demonstrated he promoted an atmosphere of compliance.”
Iona and Pitino celebrated the ruling, but it’s not the only blemish on his resume.
The 2013 NCAA championship won Pitino won at Louisville was later vacated after an investigation found an assistant coach paid escorts and exotic dancers to entertain players and recruits in campus dorms.
There were also personal improprieties revealed during a criminal case against a woman who was found guilt of trying to extort Pitino.
Before Pitino could serve his five-game suspension for the earlier NCAA case, he was fired by Louisville in 2017 when his program was implicated in the FBI case.
“He did have a couple of things, yeah,” Boeheim said. “That’s not a lot when you look at more than 40 years.”
New Mexico coach Richard Pitino, Rick’s son and former assistant, said that as the leader of a program, his father was accountable for the actions of those who worked for him.
“He was held responsible. If people are still outraged by it, I would just tell them they need to move on. Because it wasn’t like he didn’t go through a lot,” Richard Pitino told the AP. “You know he was fired. He ended up having to coach out of this country for two years. He then goes and takes Iona, which he was fortunate to get.”
After a season out of coaching and two coaching in Greece, Iona took a calculated risk in hiring Pitino when his reputation was tarnished, banking on him not being punished for allegations related to the FBI investigation.
While Iona was vindicated, it also became apparent quickly that it would be difficult for the school to keep its coach.
“We’re aware he might go,” Iona President Seamus Carey told The New York Post earlier this week.
Pitino said he hopes he can coach for 12 more years.
“But I’ll take six or seven,” he said.
Pitino, dressed in a roomy all-white sweatsuit, looked spry Thursday as he coached his team at practice in MVP Arena.
There was no doubt who was in charge as he called out directions at midcourt, and then jumped into the lane a couple of times to play defense against players driving to the basket.
“He loves basketball a lot, he even says it in practice a lot: ‘I’ll die for basketball. I want to die on a basketball court,’” Iona guard Berrick JeanLouis said with a smile. “He talks crazy about it.”
The Gaels missed out on the NCAA Tournament last year after finishing first in the MAAC during the regular season. They were upset in the conference tournament and MAAC champ Saint Peter’s went on to have magical run in March Madness as a 15 seed.
“I have felt more pressure at Iona than any other time, Kentucky, Louisville, the Knicks, Celtics,” Pitino said. “I feel so much pressure with these three (conference tournament) games you have to win to get in the (NCAA) tournament.”
Richard Pitino said he does not know what his father’s next move will be, but he is aware of Rick’s frustration with being in what is traditionally a one-NCAA-bid conference.
“That part of it I think is certainly the reason why maybe he would be open to something else,” Richard Pitino said.
The St. John’s or Georgetown jobs would bring Rick Pitino back into the Big East, where he led Providence to one of the most memorable Final Four runs in tournament history back in 1987, and where he won that national title with Louisville.
“Whoever hires him, they’ll be successful within two years. At the most,” Boeheim said. “That’s like a guarantee.”
There is a Providence link between Pitino and St. John’s right now.
St. John’s President, the Rev. Brian Shanley, was previously at the Rhode Island school, where he contributed to a revival of the basketball program that included investments in facilities and the hiring of coach Ed Cooley.
Pitino said Shanley tried to lure him back to Providence when he was at Louisville.
“I spoke to Ed Cooley the other day, said (Shanley’s) a superstar,” Pitino said.
Pitino talked about how good he has it at Iona, where he has a president and athletic director who provide all the support he needs and four starters expected back next season.
Is he up for another rebuild?
“It’s going to take a special place,” he said, “for me to consider leaving.”
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