Newly chosen University of Minnesota basketball coach Richard Pitino made a confident debut Friday, telling reporters the U already has the resources it needs to have a successful basketball program.
Critics have questioned whether the U is attractive enough to lure the players necessary to build a great team. Williams Arena needs renovations, and the U still doesn’t have a multimillion-dollar practice facility that the program has long sought.
But at his introductory press conference this morning, Pitino said the U can draw good players with its academics, passionate fan base and historic arena.
“When I look around this place, we’ve got plenty to win — and to win at a high level,” he said. “The practice facility will come, and when it comes, it will be great. But there’s so much here that we can use to our advantage, and sell.”
Pitino, head coach at Florida International University for a year prior to joining the U, replaces Tubby Smith, who was fired late last month after six seasons with the Gophers.
Pitino is signing a six-year contract worth $1.2 million annually in total base compensation — including a $500,000 salary and $700,000 in supplemental compensation for extra duties. It doesn’t include incentives.
Athletic Director Norwood Teague praised Pitino, saying he fits the three priorities of the search.
“We wanted a relentless recruiter,” he said. “We wanted someone to develop our student athletes both on and off the court. And thirdly, we wanted someone to manage and build this program to the highest level. And coach Pitino fits all of those.”
University President Eric Kaler called Pitino “the right guy at the right place.”
The move up to Minnesota is a big one for Pitino — and not just in salary, which at Florida International was about $250,000. At 30 years old, he is one of the youngest coaches in the NCAA.
Pitino says he approaches things differently from his elders — including his famous father, Louisville coach Rick Pitino — and said he has been able to develop great relationships with his players.
“I certainly embrace the fact that I’m young,” Pitino said. “I don’t try to hide from it.”
Athletic director Norwood Teague said youth wasn’t a must-have in the search, but said that after he met Pitino, “I thought it was an asset, and was definitely a plus in the end.”
Teague said he expects progress under Pitino — once saying he wants him to be “ultrasuccessful” — but that he doesn’t expect that overnight.
“We need to give him the resources to win, Teague said. “And we need to give him the time to build his program here.”
Pitino brings with him an aggressive style of defensive play — one that he says the Gophers haven’t used. It’s “a whole new system” and will take a little time to learn, he said, but will be worth it. He said players like it, and that it could be a selling point during recruiting.
“Our style of play is going to be fun for you to watch,” he said. “I think you guys will really enjoy it. It will be a lot of pressing, certainly. We’re going to press on every possession, on every make. We’re going to try to create offense from our defense. It’s going to be a style that the kids love to play. It’s going to be something where we put a lot of stock into conditioning, being physically in shape as well as mentally in shape. So it’s going to be a great brand of basketball.”
Pitino would not comment on staffers he’d like to hire, or on potential players he’d like to recruit. He said he’s hoping to meet with some staffing prospects this weekend, and needs more time to review the roster of players and determine what the team needs.
Looming over Pitino is his father, Rick Pitino, the powerhouse coach of the Louisville Cardinals who play in the NCAA Final Four this weekend. Richard served under his father for several years at Louisville, and might now have to compete either for players or on the court. He welcomed the idea of holding a match against Louisville — just not this first year.
“I’m extremely excited to go head-to-head with my dad,” Pitino said. “Game on, the way I look at it. And hopefully, he fights fair, but I’m excited. .. If I’m not going against him, I sure hope he’s helping us as much as possible as well. ”
Teague would not comment on talks he had with former Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders, who was one of a handful of people contacted about the job.
Sports pundits have poked fun at Teague for being turned down by Saunders and other candidates, but he told reporters the coaching search “really went well, and it progressed like we had planned.”
He made a jab at some media and online reports of his meetings with potential candidates.
“I made a lot of offers that I didn’t know I made to a lot of candidates I didn’t know I met with,” he said.
Teague said searches take time.
“I didn’t have a time frame from the beginning,” he said. “We wanted to find the right fit, and we did. We got really lucky with this guy.”
Teague said Pitino “was always on my list.”
Likewise, Pitino said he and his wife hope to be with Minnesota “for the rest of our lives.”
Teague said it’s part of the business that coaches sometimes move on after just a few seasons. But he said both he and Pitino are new to Minnesota and will be “attached to the hip.” The one thing he said he can control as athletic director is the relationship and support he gives coaches, which “does, at times, behind the scenes, keep coaches in certain jobs.” He pledged to be a “servant-leader” to Pitino.
Pitino will also receive a total of $800,000 in incentives to stay on until 2019. Athletic performance incentives range from $25,000 for being conference tournament champion to $100,000 for winning the national championship. Maximum academic performance incentives include $75,000 for having a cumulative team grade point average of 3.5 or above, and $75,000 for having an Academic Progress Rate of 980 or higher.