by Conor Gereg

At the conclusion of each season the Coaching Carousel begins spinning into chaos, displacing name brands and proving opportunities to the next generation of program leaders. COVID-19 put the brakes to much this as strained financial implications due to the pandemic seemed to save countless jobs this past summer. With the exception of Danny Manning’s surprise exit from Wake Forest, this past spring and summer provided very little coaching movement in comparison to previous off-seasons. Should life regain some sense of normalcy this season, Spring 2021 is sure to revive the pandemonium yet again. 

Typically, late summer means there’s little new fresh content floating around the sport and instead this “dead period” merits speculation of coaches who may find themselves under fire to produce in coming months. Rather than speculate on the welfare of coaches on the hot seat, how about some positivity? Let’s build a defense for those who, even with a cursory search of the internet, find speculation circling overhead. Among the nation’s coaches who deserve a defense, one in particular comes to mind: University of Minnesota’s Richard Pitino. 

Still Time to Produce

This will be year seven for Pitino whose 48-82 (.369) record has left Gopher fans yearning for a change. Fans may want immediate results but the truth is clear: the Big Ten has never been better and likely would have produced 11 postseason caliber programs—yes, 11 teams in the NCAA tournament, tying a mark set by the 2011 Big East.

 The Big 10 is unquestionably a rugged and unforgiving league that will surely produce a champion (Big 10 fans are well aware it’s been since Mateen Cleaves’ 2000 Spartans cut down the nets that the league has crowned a national champ), and Pitino is forced to navigate a league where even the bottom of the conference offers very little terrain to catch a break (even Rutgers was poised for its first NCAA berth since 1996 last year). 

The Big 10 has undergone changes over the last seven seasons following the addition of Maryland and Rutgers but for the sake of comparison let’s look at how this new look Big 10 aligns with Pitino’s arrival in Minneapolis: 

Minnesota prior to Pitino: 

2007-2008 – 20-14 (8-10 in Big 10) – NIT First Round 

2008-2009 – 22-11 (9-9 in Big 10) – NCAA First Round 

2009-2010 – 21-14 (9-9 in Big 10) – NCAA First Round

2010-2011 – 17-14 (6-12 in Big 10)

2011-2012 – 23-15 (6-12 in Big 10) – NIT Title Game – Runner-Up 

2012-2013 – 21-13 (8-10 in Big 10) – NCAA Sweet 16

Minnesota with Pitino: 

2013-2014 – 25-13 (8-10 in Big 10) – NIT Champions

2014-2015 – 18-15 (6-12 in Big 10)

2015-2016 – 8-23 (2-16 in Big 10)

2016-2017 – 24-10 (11-7 in Big 10) – NCAA Tournament First Round

2017-2018 – 15-17 (4-14 in Big 10)

2018-2019 – 21-13 (9-11 in Big 10)

2019-2020 – 15-16 (8-12 in Big 10) 

It’s clear when comparing the two eras, eras with and without Pitino, that success has been inconsistent throughout his regime. It should be noted that the Big 10 became one of college basketball’s pioneer leagues in implementing a 20-game conference schedule beginning in 2018-2019. This meant more games against quality, in-conference opponents and fewer chances to beat up on guarantee games that inflated the win column.

“This league is the deepest league in America,” a rival coach said of the conference’s annual 20 game slog. “You’re always going into tough places.”

Critics will point to the 2017 season as the most recent time the Gophers finished within the top-four of the league, and amidst that drought the program’s overall performance comes with a chorus of displeasure from the Minnesota faithful. Despite this uproar is the fact that Pitino has brought a handful of winning seasons to program though perhaps the biggest reason for retaining the 37 year old coach isn’t necessarily anything in the win column but rather what’s on the horizon: prized local recruit, Chet Holmgren. 

A Big Fish Awaits 

Recruiting is fluid though most recruiting services suggest that Richard Pitino and his staff are in a favorable position with one of the most talented local high school products in recent memory. Holmgren has the skills and frame to make an immediate impact for the Gophers and in turn, transform the fortune of the program.  A 7’6” wingspan and shooting stroke rarely seen in a player his size, Holmgren has spent his entire childhood in the burrows of Golden Gopher basketball, suiting up at Minnehana Academy in Minneapolis. Holmgren now stands over 7-foot though even as a 6’2” freshman Pitino’s staff began targeting the prospect which leads many to believe that a longstanding relationship and proximity to home puts Minnesota in the driver’s seat. Axing the coach, and his assistants, most certainly severs any chance Holmgren dons the maroon and gold. 

Already in the pipeline and set to make freshmen debuts are a pair of top-150 recruits in scoring guard Jamal Mashburn Jr and big man Martice Mitchell. Pitino also secured a 2021 pledge from Treyton Thompson, a consensus top-100 post player who measures in a 6’11” but unlike Holmgren, Thompson is more a tradition interior presence whereas Holmgren is mobile enough to play both inside and out. This collection of talent, and the possibility of more to come, should be enough to buy Pitino more time. 

The Financial Hurdle 

2013 welcomed a then 30 year old coach to the sidelines, and this stop in Minnesota is by far the Pitino’s longest stay in any single spot. Beginning as an assistant at College of Charleston in 2004, Pitino has never spent more than two consecutive years at a single program, climbing the assistant coaching ladder to Northeastern, Duquesne, Louisville, Florida before finally earning Associate Head Coach status at Louisville in 2011 which catapulted Pitino to his first Head Coaching gig at Florida International in 2012. 

It was just three years ago that Pitino, at age 34, was named Big Ten Coach of the Year, an accolade that earned him both a raise and an eventual extension. Pitino will see just north of $2 million this upcoming season, far from a bargain, though when compared to his conference coaching counterparts, the veteran coach is reasonably priced. In a time of financial question marks due to the pandemic, it seems unlikely Minnesota would be willing to swallow the coach’s $2 million dollar buyout; however, this figure does drop to $1.7 at the conclusion of the 19-20 season.  

Further buoying Pitino’s case is the contract extension he signed at the conclusion of the 2019 season. The extension promises to pay the coach through the 2023-2024 season and keeps his average salary at $2.4 million. These factors combined point to the prudent route of riding out the remainder of Pitino’s remaining four years. 

The Pieces to Contend

July 31st brought news that star point guard Marcus Carr would be returning for his junior season. Carr, a former Pitt transfer and multi-dimensional guard, will cushion the loss of big man Daniel Oturu.  Carr brings the offensive punch Pitino will need (15.4 PPG) to compete in the Big 10 and the Toronto native also provides rebounding (5.3 RPG) and facilitating help (6.7 APG). Carr’s return means he will connect once again with backcourt mate Gabe Kalscheur (11.6 PPG) and ultimately keep Pitino’s lead guards in the fold which should be enough to keep this group afloat.

Final Verdict 

Prior to Pitino’s hire in 2013 the program had enjoyed a stretch of 20+ wins in 5 of 6 years. Those seasons seem be growing more rarified in the hyper competitive Big 10 but the Gopher faithful is far better suited taking the long view and seeing how the next few seasons play out. This level of patience was of course made more difficult by the inauspicious start to last season, beginning  0-3, dropping games to Oklahoma, Butler, and Utah. Nevertheless, a strong start to 2020-2021 paired with more victories on the recruiting trail will go a long way in ensuring this staff gets many more years in Minneapolis.