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Zulgad: Off the hot seat: Tournament berth gives Richard Pitino job security

Richard Pitino heard the rumors, he saw the headlines and although he might have been tempted to ask, the Gophers men’s basketball coach said he never did approach athletic director Mark Coyle to inquire on whether his job might be in jeopardy.

“I’ve got little kids, I like it here,” Pitino said Tuesday. “Humanize it as much as you want, but I want to be here. You read things and you hear things. It’s not a knock on the media. I understand you have to do your job and so when you see your picture up there as on the hot seat, and if he doesn’t make the tournament he’s fired, I don’t know if it’s true or not. I didn’t want to ask Mark.”

It should be safe to assume that Pitino no longer has to worry about approaching his boss to check on whether he’s in jeopardy of being fired after six seasons at Minnesota. The Gophers will make their second NCAA tournament appearance under Pitino, and their second in three seasons, on Thursday when they open play as a 10th seed against seventh-seeded Louisville in Des Moines, Iowa.

This comes after a roller-coaster season in which the Gophers went 10-1 in non-conference and 9-11 in the Big Ten to finish seventh in the conference. Although the Gophers were confident they would get into the tournament even if they lost their opening game in the Big Ten tournament to Penn State, Minnesota solidified its spot beat by beating Penn State and Purdue before getting crushed by Michigan. The real relief, however, had come with a 73-69 victory over Purdue on March 5 at Williams Arena.

The Gophers’ up-and-down season — they lost four in a row and six of seven at one point — in many ways mirrored Pitino’s time at the school. Hired by former athletic director Norwood Teague to take over for Tubby Smith in 2013, Pitino led the Gophers to a 25-13 finish, including 8-10 in the Big Ten, in his first season. Minnesota capped that season with an NIT title.

The Gophers then went 18-15 and 6-12 in the Big Ten to finish tied for 10th in 2014-15; 8-23 and 2-16 to finish 13th in 2015-16; and 24-10 and 11-7 to finish fourth and make the NCAA tournament in 2016-17. Pitino earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors after that turnaround.

But it also created expectations that the Gophers did not come close to meeting in 2017-18 as they went 15-17 overall and 4-14 in the conference. It was the disappointment of last season, one in which injuries and the suspension of Reggie Lynch derailed things, that resulted in questions being asked about Pitino’s future and how much longer he might have to get things on track? Pitino will take a 111-91 (.550 winning percentage) into Thursday’s game, but he’s 30 games under .500 (40-70) in the Big Ten.

Smith was 124-81 (.605) with a 46-62 (.426) record in the Big Ten when Teague decided to fire him after the Gophers beat UCLA in an NCAA tournament game before losing to Florida. Smith had led Minnesota to three tournament berths.

While Smith was fired after losing a second-round game in his sixth season, Pitino almost certainly isn’t going into this tournament coaching for his job. Teague fired Smith in part because basketball was considered his area of expertise and he wanted to make what he felt would be an impact hire. It was thought he would have a chance to hire VCU’s Shaka Smart — Teague had been the AD at that school before taking the Minnesota job — but that didn’t happen and Teague ended up hiring the then-30-year-old Pitino from Florida International University.

Pitino is still only 36-years old, but the son of legendary coach Rick Pitino, has made plenty of adjustments in his time at Minnesota. ”

“He’s changed a lot,” Gophers senior guard Dupree McBrayer said. “When I first got here he used to scream a little bit more, but now he’s a player’s coach so he’s understanding our point of view more. He asks me for advice on things, which he wasn’t doing in my freshman year. Now that I’m older, I think he trusts me more, trusts (senior Jordan Murphy) more and asks, ‘How do you think we should guard this?’ or, ‘What do you want to do with this?’ For you to have a player’s coach and for them to understand what you see, that’s valuable.”

Pitino, who received a contract extension after the Gophers made the NCAA tournament in 2017 and is now signed through the 2022 season, was asked what makes him most proud as far as the job he’s done in six seasons.

“Obviously, two out of three (years) going to the tournament,” Pitino said. “You’ve got to build a program. That takes time. I thought this program was primed for my fourth year, we were a five seed in the NCAA tournament, we were top four in the Big Ten. I felt last year we would have been good, but it’s just one of those years where everything kind of went wrong. To bounce back and be in the tournament now. As a coach, you want stability and you try to provide that. We’ve had a lot of instability at the top. I’ve had three different ADs. You’ve had a lot of change. I don’t know. I try not to look back too much on it. You try to keep making this thing as strong as you possibly can.”

It looks as if Pitino is now assured of getting that chance.


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