MINNEAPOLIS — The search is over.
The University of Minnesota confirmed Wednesday that Richard Pitino — son of legendary Louisville coach Rick Pitino — has reached an agreement in principle to be the Gophers’ next head men’s basketball coach in a high-risk, high-reward hire to replace former coach Tubby Smith.
Pitino, 30 was an assistant coach at Northeastern, Duquesne, Florida and Louisville — working as the top assistant under his father during the 2011-12 season. He accepted the position at Florida International last year, where he had signed a five-year contract with a base salary of $250,000 a year. Pitino’s buyout at FIU reportedly is also $250,000. Terms of the Minnesota deal are not yet known, but he can expect a significant raise. A news conference to introduce Pitino likely will be Friday.
Pitino, who led Florida International this season in his first year of head coaching experience, is less than half the age of Smith and the youngest of any Minnesota basketball coach since the Gophers’ original coach in 1897.
“I like his pedigree,” former Gophers player and current booster Paul Presthus said. “I like the fact that he’s learned at the feet of a couple of the leading college coaches today in his dad and Billy Donovan. Everything that I’ve heard and been able to check, he’s a quality individual, high energy, good recruiter.”
Pitino worked under Donovan at Florida for two years. Gophers Athletic Director Norwood Teague and associate AD Mike Ellis came from Virginia Commonwealth, where Anthony Grant and Shaka Smart were hired off Donovan’s staffs for their first head coaching jobs.
Pitino compiled an 18-14 record with the Golden Panthers last season — FIU’s first winning season since 1999-2000. FIU ranked 48th in the country in pace of play last year, while the Gophers ranked 278th.
In his short career, Pitino has gained the reputation of a tireless worker and an active recruiter — two qualities he will need at Minnesota. He inherits a team that reached the NCAA tournament round of 32, but one that loses Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams from its frontcourt. Six potentially game-changing recruits from the 2014 and 2015 high school classes are playing in Minnesota or western Wisconsin.
“It’s just a shocker that he left, especially with a great recruiting class coming in as well as some of the transfers that are going be playing for us next year like Raymond Taylor and Rakeem Buckles,” senior guard Manny Nunez told Florida International’s student paper.
When the Pitino news broke Wednesday, the Gophers’ coaching search was in its ninth day — a relatively short amount of time in the grand scheme of major coaching searches. But considering that Teague and Ellis conducted the search underneath a veil of secrecy, some Gophers fans had started to worry. Fan reaction to Pitino, however, was immediately positive.
Teague announced that Minnesota had fired Smith, who received a buyout of $2.5 million, on March 25, the day after the Gophers’ season ended with an NCAA Tournament loss to Florida. At the news conference announcing Smith’s firing, Teague said Minnesota was looking for a “fresh approach” from its new coach.
“I like what I’ve heard about him,” Gophers booster Lou Nanne said of Pitino. “I certainly trust Norwood and his group to make this choice.”
Six other names were seriously discussed in conversation with the Minnesota job before Pitino’s name surfaced Wednesday morning, but all were either quickly dismissed or never gained much steam.
The administration was believed to have set its sights on VCU’s Smart from the outset, but any conversations were quickly squashed when Smart signed an extension with the Rams.
Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, Butler’s Brad Stevens, Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, Florida Gulf Coast’s Andy Enfield and former Gophers player, Timberwolves coach and current ESPN analyst Flip Saunders were all reportedly contacted by Minnesota. Enfield took the USC job. Saunders, Cronin and Stevens reportedly declined. Hoiberg, like Smart, agreed to an extension with his current school, Iowa State.