Pitino needs full buy-in from Minnesota

April, 3, 2013
4/03/13
6:37
PM ET

 
MINNEAPOLIS -- Hello, Richard Pitino (the folks around here will obviously call you Coach Pitino now).

I’d like to welcome you to Minnesota.

I’ve been in this state for more than a decade. And I covered the first four years of the Tubby Smith Era at the Star Tribune prior to my current tenure as a national college basketball writer with ESPN.com.

I think the Gophers made a good decision when they hired you on Wednesday. Honestly.

They clearly swung for the fences in the first few days of the search, but I always figured that they’d ultimately land an up-and-coming mid-major coach or assistant. A “Shaka Smart move.” And why not go with a guy who learned the game from the only coach in Division I history to lead three different programs to the Final Four?

Yes, you have a last name and a father that local recruits will recognize. But you’re more established than most probably realize, too. You’re young (30), but you come to Minneapolis with an impressive set of accomplishments for a guy who won’t turn 31 until the fall.

You were a high school assistant for St. Andrew’s School (Barrington, R.I.) when you were a team manager at Providence. You’ve been an assistant under your father and Billy Donovan. And Rick Pitino’s coaching tree has produced other young coaching stars over the years: Smart, Donovan, Anthony Grant and more. You could be next in line.

[+] EnlargeRichard Pitino
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyRichard Pitino will try to turn Minnesota into a serious Big Ten title contender for the first time since the late 1990s.
Last month, you led Florida International to a win over favored Middle Tennessee State in the Sun Belt tournament before suffering a loss to Western Kentucky in the title game. So you nearly took the Golden Panthers (18-14) to the NCAA tournament a year after they finished 8-21? That’s a solid debut for any head coach.

You have the individual tools to win at Minnesota. You have the energy to overhaul a program that hasn’t been a Big Ten threat since the late ’90s. And those years … well, I’ll let someone else explain the Gophers basketball chapter that’s no longer acknowledged by the NCAA.

But there’s talent in these parts. Tyus Jones and Rashad Vaughn, a pair of Twin Cities residents, are both ranked in the top 10 of ESPN.com’s rankings for the class of 2014.

That’s the good. Now … the truth.

You’ll struggle to win at Minnesota unless you get more support from the university.

This is a school that currently plays in a building that was built in the 1920s. Seriously.

That practice facility that administrators are probably promising you right now? Well, athletic director Norwood Teague's predecessors told Tubby Smith they’d build one for him, too. That was 2007.

Your Big Ten peers have the ability to make multiple recruiting stops around the country and still get home in time for dinner. You might be at the airport with the rest of us. Smith took a chunk of his recruiting trips on commercial flights.

Yes, they’re just extras. Some coaches go without them. But Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and Tom Crean do not. And those are the men that you’ll have to out-coach, out-recruit (regionally, at least) and outwork to push Minnesota toward the top of the league in the future.

To do that you’ll need the University of Minnesota to invest in your program. I’m talking millions.

The practice facility would be a great start. It would help the squad lure recruits locally and nationally. How? Kids like nice things. Shiny things. It’s simple, really.

I’m sure fans here will sell you on the Barn’s “nostalgia.” But the young players you will covet here and around the country listen to 2 Chainz and watch movies on their smartphones. The only history they know is recent history, which says Minnesota hasn’t been a true threat in the Big Ten or nationally in a long time.

And I don’t think X’s and O’s alone will change that, regardless of your talent and knowledge. You’ll need Teague and alumni in the area to put more money into college basketball so you can attract the brand of talented prospects who’ve elevated your father’s programs in the past.

I’m not saying it will happen today. But it’s necessary moving forward.

Being in the Big Ten is one thing. Being in the Big Ten as the guy who’s waiting for a 5 p.m. flight, while Izzo and Matta are zipping around the country on private jets, is another.

The good news is people like to invest in sports in the Twin Cities. There’s a beautiful hockey arena (Xcel Energy Center) in St. Paul. Target Field, home of the Twins, is one of the most intimate venues in Major League Baseball. And across the street from your new home, there’s the $300 million TCF Bank Stadium for Gophers football. Maybe the people who wrote the checks for the latter venue will find a few million to build a practice facility for the Gophers.

It might save you some embarrassment. I remember the day when the participants of an all-state gymnastics meet poured into Williams Arena during a pregame media gathering with Smith and his team. The leader of the meet blasted the music and refused to turn it down even after Smith asked for a few more minutes. Nope. We all had to move, coaches included. The young gymnasts stayed.

That’s the kind of stuff you deal with when you don’t have a practice facility.

Perhaps Teague has a plan to change the circumstances.

Without a plan -- a plan that involves a multimillion dollar boost for college basketball at the University of Minnesota -- you might wish you were back at Florida International in a few years.

You can’t do this alone. Trust me.

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