Rick Pitino returning to big-time college basketball? It’s no longer a matter of if, but where

ALBUQUERQ, NE MEXICO - DEC 18: Head coach Rick Pitino of the Iona Gaels gestures during the second half of his team's game against the New Mexico Lobos at The Pit on December 18, 2022 in Albuquerque, NM.  The Lobos defeated the Gaels 82-74.  (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
Rick Pitino, now at Iona, is the only men’s coach to have won a national championship at two different schools. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

The Upside Down of March Madness is an annual coaching merry-go-round in which failed basketball programs struggle to determine the winner who can return them to glory.

There are always a few hot, coveted coaching prospects. Rarely has there been such a sure thing on the market. There is one now.

He’s just 70 years old and just now attractive for high-profile hire because everything he was accused of in his latest scandal is now NCAA legal, and even so, he’s managed to survive it with the new compliance bill.

“There is not enough information to conclude that the former No. 1 head coach knew or should have known that an employee of the No. 1 clothing company was going to pay $100,000 to the father of the No. 1 future student-athlete,” the NCAA ruling reads. basketball program at the University of Louisville since last November.

Who is the “former #1 head coach”?

None other than Rick Pitino.

That’s right, Ricky P – cleansed of all wrongdoing – is back.

In fact, he barely quit after the University of Louisville fired him in 2017 following NCAA allegations. Pitino coached in Greece for a while, but then took charge of Iona College in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference three years ago. He spent his first year in the NCAA and has won 50 games in the past two years. The Gaels (25-7) play Friday in the MAAC semi-finals and still qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

If there is such a thing as a guaranteed winner, it’s Pitino. He’s 709-289 (.710) in his college career, and his only losing season came at Boston University back in 1980-81.

[Free bracket contests for men’s & women’s tourneys for shot at $25K]

He is the only coach in Division I history to lead two different schools to an NCAA championship (Kentucky 1996, Louisville 2013).

He is also one of two coaches (John Calipari) in Division I history to lead three different schools to the Final Four (three times in Louisville, twice in Kentucky, and once in Providence in 1987).

And, yes, the NCAA officially stripped Louisville of that national title for violating the rules (this was the case before most recent case), but he still won those games.

Either way, that’s the risk/reward of hiring Pitino. You never know what could happen, but 20-win NCAA Tournament seasons (won in all of the above plus Boston University and Iona) will surely be a part of it. He won at the Low Major, Middle Major, High Major, and then again at the Low Major.

Have a whistle. Will win.

Thus, he is already the top candidate for three major vacancies.

• St. John’s is offering him the chance to stay in his beloved New York and rebuild a once proud program. This is the one that probably makes the most sense.

• Georgetown has huge potential and, like St. John’s, will bring Pitino back to the Big East, where it has always made the most sense.

• Texas Institute of Technology is said to be ready to make a huge cash offer and a chance to play in the Big 12, which is currently the best basketball conference in the country.

Again, Pitino in… Lubbock? If Pizza Hut and Domino’s are on the same block, they call it Little Italy.

“Before, where I lived didn’t matter, but now it does,” Pitino told last month when openly discussing his future. “I have no idea what the answer is about where I will be or what I will be doing. I know that I love [Iona]. I know that I’m eight minutes away [from home]. I know I love Winged Foot [Golf Club]. … I know there are certain places and 20 or 30 states where I don’t want to live.”

Maybe the entire state of Texas isn’t on that 20 to 30 list, but the Southern Plains of Texas might be. Or maybe the Red Raiders’ ability, budget, and recent success overcome that.

With Pitino, you never know.

“It has to be some really special place with a president like I have here,” Pitino said, referring to his symbiotic relationship with the Jonah administration. “Now it’s easy. The NCAA exonerated me, they said you didn’t do anything, now I’m easy to hire. [Iona president] Seamus Carey had no such guarantee.”

Perhaps loyalty will win, but Pitino seems well aware that as satisfying as MAAC training is, it has limits. Being in a league with one bet is unpleasant.

“I want to train for another five or six years,” Pitino said, aware of his age. “I still train like a demon. I’m still getting it. And while you’re doing it, your mind is sharp. Today, I’m still more passionate about it than I’ve ever been in my life.

“And again, it’s because I know my window is closing. I want to do something special, Iona or not, it doesn’t matter. I want to do something special and I think we’re doing something special.”

Who would argue that he would take on just about any program and break various thresholds of success – a 20-win season, the NCAA Tournament, even another Final Four berth?

Tactically, he is still as good as he is in all of basketball. He is still charismatic and charming in the recruitment process. His track record of player development and success in the NBA is undeniable. His team is getting better.

The guy wins. Always. And as the NCAA loosened the rulebook and society loosened its moral integrity, there’s still time for another performance by college basketball legend Rick Pitino.

It is no longer a matter of if, but of where.


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