Rick Pitino talks about the downfall, the allegations, the shocking and unceremonious firing from one of college basketball’s best jobs. He talks about his move to Greece, his still-growing passion for the sport, his willingness to leave his family to continue his career.
The 68-year-old Iona coach has plenty of time to talk, sitting in isolation in his Westchester home, waiting for the final days of the Gaels’ two-week COVID-19-related isolation to expire.
Since Pitino’s stunning March hiring, the scandal-scarred Hall of Famer has repeatedly talked about his appreciation for the opportunity, to be back in New York, to return to a Catholic campus.
Yet, Pitino talks as if he isn’t taking on his first mid-major job in 37 years, as if he isn’t leading a program without an NCAA Tournament win in four decades.
“Certainly you don’t have the bells and the whistles. You don’t have the private planes to go recruiting. You don’t have 22,000 people in the arena. You’re not on national television every night,” Pitino said. “But what takes place between the lines is the same, the same strategies, same styles of play, same competitive nature. The game is still the same.
“As far as the ambition to play in a Final Four, that’s still here. I don’t see any reason why we still shouldn’t have those dreams. I had it in Providence. … Iona has a great tradition. Every coach who has coached there has been very successful from Jimmy Valvano on to Tim Cluess. There’s just no reason it can’t turn into something special with the right recruiting.”
The coaching can’t be questioned.
Pitino led Boston University to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 24 years. He needed just two seasons to take Providence to the 1987 Final Four as a sixth seed, the first of Pitino’s seven trips. He needed just two seasons to lead the Knicks to their best season in 16 years. He led Kentucky from probation to its first national title in 18 years. He led Louisville to its first national title in 27 years, becoming the first coach to win national championships at multiple programs and the first to take three different schools to the Final Four.
Of course, Pitino was also the first coach to have a national title vacated, following the discovery that a Louisville assistant provided prostitutes and strippers to recruits in an on-campus dorm. Pitino was issued a five-game ACC suspension, which he never served because Louisville would lock him out of his office and escort him off campus before the 2017-18 season began, following an FBI probe, which uncovered six-figure payments made to recruits’ families by Louisville assistants, via its sponsor (Adidas).
“I look back, I spent 17 years at Louisville, the way they did it, the way they terminated me was despicable in many ways, but for what my assistant coaches did I deserved to be fired,” Pitino said. “I have to pay the consequences for the people I hire.”
Even in a profession built upon coaches receiving multiple chances, Pitino appeared to be blackballed forever. He hoped for another run in the NBA. But after spending more than a full calendar year out of coaching for the first time since graduating corecrllege, Pitino’s best option came on Christmas 2018, when he flew solo to Athens to coach Panathinaikos of the Greek Basket League.
“It was a decision just to pick up and go and see what it was like, almost like a 21-year-old kid would do,” Pitino said. “The first year was lonely. … The second year was great. It was thoroughly a great experience. Greece taught me to let my animosities go, let any bitterness go and just move on with my life.”
Pitino had never been a bigger celebrity — “More so than any period in my life,” Pitino said. “Even Kentucky.” — an ocean away from ignominy. He traveled all across Europe, becoming the Greek national coach. He watched American morning shows before falling to sleep. He experienced the “Derby of the Eternal Enemies.”
“Panathinaikos’ rivalry with Olympiacos is probably the biggest rivalry in all of sports. You walk into their place with 75 to 100 police with shields, a net around the court. It was great going through all of that,” Pitino said. “They don’t have the bells and the whistles over there, play in small gyms and not a whole lot of money behind the Greek League. It’s something that probably got me ready for the MAAC.”
At the same time, the MAAC’s best coach of the past decade stepped away from the sideline. After six NCAA Tournament bids in eight years at Iona, Tim Cluess missed all of last season with a health issue, leading to his resignation in March.
“It was thoroughly a great experience. Greece taught me to let my animosities go, let any bitterness go and just move on with my life.” – Rick Pitino
Pitino found an opportunity in his native New York, minutes from one of his sons, near his Manhattan apartment, five miles from the Winged Foot Golf Club he’s long belonged to. Most importantly, the coach found a program willing to do what hundreds wouldn’t — believe him — because of Pitino’s already-established relationship with Iona president Seamus Carey and top booster Robert LaPenta
“[Carey] knew all about me and he was totally comfortable not believing anything that was said,” Pitino said. “He knew me. He knew my very close associates. He knew the players I coached. I didn’t have to prove my innocence, my credibility or what I was about.”
Only four players — including two starters — return from Iona’s first losing season since 2009, but in April, Pitino announced a strong, eight-player recruiting class, all met through Zoom.
Pitino’s résumé is still paying off. The final line will be a strange and compelling sight to behold.
“They probably need me more than the Louisville players needed me. And they have big dreams, also,” Pitino said. “They can lean on me to try and get them to where they want to go. It’s gonna be very rewarding for me and I’m really hoping it will be for them.
“It’s where I want to end my career. It’s a great way to go out. In my hometown, living in a place I love.”
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