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Goldstein: Richard Pitino was not a failure with Gophers

It was time to go, but Pitino wasn't lucky in his 8 years at Minnesota.
Richard Pitino

On Monday, the University of Minnesota fired men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino. 

In eight years on the job, Pitino was just 141-123 and a paltry 54-96 in Big Ten play. Pitino’s teams were plagued by frustrating play, blown leads, and recruiting questions as local players frequently turned down the Gophers, and after years of questions about the future of the program a new direction is be undertaken.

But all those things said, Richard Pitino, who has already been hired to coach at New Mexico, was not a failure.

He was not unsuccessful

The ultimate measuring stick of a college basketball coach is whether they get their team to the NCAA tournament, and the heaviest criticism of Pitino comes from him only doing so twice in eight years, failing to get past the second round either time.

Is that good? No, not really. But for a program that’s only been dancing 14 times ever, it’s far from pathetic. Yes, the tournament field has expanded, and yes, the years of ranked Gophers teams fading off the bubble do Pitino no favors, but considering the U has only won two tournament games this century, two trips and one win isn’t the calamity some fans might have you think it is. Iowa’s Fran McCaffery, for example, a coach sometimes cited as the type of leader Minnesota needs, is currently entering his tenth NCAA tournament having never gotten out of the first weekend.

Much has also been made of Pitino only finishing with a winning record in the Big Ten once, when the 2016-2017 team went 11-7. Again, far from ideal, but the reality is this: the Gophers have only been over .500 in conference play three times since the 1997 Final Four team – twice under Dan Monson and once under Pitino – and have only been above .500 in conference play nine times since 1980. As competitive as the program might have been for generations of Minnesotans growing up, the U has simply not been very good for a while.

He got very unlucky

The 2016-17 NCAA tournament team, Pitino’s first, lost to Middle Tennessee State. They also had to play without their only senior, grad transfer Akeem Springs, the team’s captain, starting shooting guard, and leading three-point shooter, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in the Big Ten tournament. They went 6-21 from beyond the arc in the loss.

The 2018-19 tournament team, Pitino’s second, beat Louisville before falling to Michigan State. They were forced to battle a bruising Spartans team without Jordan Murphy, whose sore back limited him to just four minutes. They were out-rebounded 45-19 in the loss. That team also had to play without a true point guard as Marcus Carr – unexpectedly, according to some – was denied eligibility by the NCAA after transferring. Were Carr eligible, the U would have had a natural playmaker running the show, leaving Amir Coffey to play his better-suited spot off the ball and the offense more efficient, and who knows what the team’s ceiling would have been then; Big Ten Network analyst Jon Crispin said the Gophers would have been an Elite Eight team with Carr.

Then there was the 2017-2018 team, perhaps Pitino’s most talented. With a starting five of all-Big Ten guard Nate Mason, Dupree McBrayer, Coffey, Murphy, and Big Ten defensive player of the year Reggie Lynch, the Gophers found themselves ranked as high as No. 12 in the country and started the year 13-3. Then Lynch got suspended – something Pitino never really had to address despite the fact Lynch was allowed to practice after being accused of sexual assault by three different women – and Coffey got hurt and McBrayer got hurt and they lost 14 of 16 to end the year. Had that team played a full season with their opening night roster, they’re almost unquestionably a tournament team, likely a dangerous one, and Minnesota thus would have gone to the NCAAs three seasons in a row – something that’s never happened in the program’s history, and perhaps something that irrevocably changes Pitino’s standing.

That season – so close yet so far away – has basically been a microcosm of Pitino’s tenure. Eric Curry, a 6-9 power forward with NBA potential, had a very productive freshman season in ’16-17 only to see his career decimated by injuries and that potential left untapped. Jarvis Johnson, a four-start point guard and 2015 DeLaSalle grad who picked the Gophers over the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan State, and UCLA, was found to have a heart condition and wasn’t able to play at all. Had Coffey not left school early, last year’s team might’ve been completely different. Even as off the rocks as this season went, it can be directly tied to when Liam Robbins – who led the Big Ten in blocks and had 27 and 14 and 22 and 8 against Michigan and Ohio State, respectively – tweaked his ankle. College basketball success is often contingent on luck, and Pitino’s Gophers struggled to find any.

His recruiting was not as bad as made out to be

The biggest knock against Pitino was his inability to keep Minnesotans at home, with Tyus and Tre Jones, Jalen Suggs, Kerwin Walton, Matthew Hurt, Rashad Vaughn, Reid Travis, Gary Trent Jr., McKinley Wright, Jericho Sims, Zeke Nnaji, and Dawson Garcia among the top recruits to pass on wearing the maroon and gold. Without a doubt Pitino could have recruited the state better, and it’s frustrating for any Gopher fan to see such high levels of talent head elsewhere year after year. 

But the idea that most of those guys could have stayed is laughable. No coach is going to convince someone to turn down Duke or North Carolina to play for the Gophers, which takes nearly half that list out of play, and one-and-dones like Suggs (or Chet Holmgren) staying home is a pipe dream. Even some of the lesser programs guys went to – Stanford for Travis, Texas for Sims, Arizona for Nnaji – have considerably more prestige than Minnesota. The chance to play for a legend like Coach K or Roy Williams, to consistently play on national television, to be somewhere with established relationships in the NBA world, even just to experience warmer weather or a different atmosphere after growing up in the state – these are things anyone recruiting kids to the U has to deal with, and frankly it makes a difficult sell.

Moreover, Pitino recruited – and developed – some excellent players. Coffey, a top-30 recruit, stayed home before leaving after his junior year to become the first Gopher to make an NBA roster out of school in more than fifteen years. Daniel Oturu, a top-50 recruit, developed into an all-American in just two seasons, becoming the first Gopher drafted since Kris Humphries in 2003. Murphy came in as an undersized spring recruit after decommitting from VCU and turned into one of the best players in program history, while Carr, a somewhat unheralded transfer, set the program’s single-season assists record. There were certainly guys who didn’t develop under Pitino – Isaiah Washington and Jarvis Omersa come to mind – but the idea that he was recruiting nobodies is not true.

His job was not easy

Ultimately, it was probably time to move on. The same problems, like lack of depth and a February slump, seemed to plague the team every year. Pitino’s in-game adjustments were minimal, and his offensive schemes were at times exasperating. But there are two points which must be made. 

First, Pitino only got the job because a long list of candidates – rumored to have included Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, Andy Enfield, Fred Hoiberg, and Flip Saunders – turned the Gophers down. And second, being a successful Division I basketball coach is really, really hard.

Smart, whose VCU ties with former athletic director Norwood Teague made him the dream candidate, has won a grand total of zero NCAA tournament games since saying no to Minnesota and has found himself on the hot seat at Texas for the better part of three years. Archie Miller, who came to Indiana after taking Dayton to four straight NCAA tournaments, has failed to find similar success in Bloomington, ultimately leading to his firing on Monday. Chris Collins, who led Northwestern to their only tournament appearance in 116 years, faces a make-it-or-break-it season next year and could very well be the next to go. Outside the Big Ten, Iowa State’s Steve Prohm – four tourney appearances in ten seasons in Ames and at Murray State – has been fired. Notre Dame’s Mike Brey last week left the court to chants of “fire Brey!” despite having taken the Irish to twelve NCAA tournaments.

My favorite factoid of all-time concerns John Wooden. Wooden coached at UCLA for 15 years before winning a national championship – then he won ten in 12 years. Was he not a good coach those first 15 years? Was there something new he picked up between years nine and ten that changed his trajectory? Of course not. Coaches like Wooden, or Coach K or Roy Williams are lionized precisely because so many of their peers aren’t up to anywhere near their standard – because it’s a ludicrously hard standard to meet.

So, as the Gophers look for a new coach, glaring shortcomings – in recruiting, in excitement surrounding the program, in wins and losses on the court – must be addressed. 

Minnesota is a place where a good coach can win, and under Pitino the school simply wasn’t competing at a level it could have been. He had to go. But the same thing was said about Dan Monson, who won 75% of his games at Gonzaga, and again about Tubby Smith, who had a national championship to his name at Kentucky. Perhaps none of the three were the right hire. Perhaps none of the three are even very good coaches. But if that’s the case, what does that say about Minnesota? And how does that reflect on Richard Pitino?

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