Rick Pitino comes with plenty of baggage, but if he can take Iona to the next level, the luggage won’t seem so heavy.
Sooner or later, someone was going to hire Rick Pitino. It just so happens that someone is Iona College, tucked away in New Rochelle, NY. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference powerhouse is coming off of a disappointing 12-17 season, but prior to that, the Gaels made four straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Tim Cluess, who recently stepped down due to health problems, built a successful mini-mid major right on the outskirts of New York City. The one thing Cluess and the Gaels never could do though: win in the NCAA Tournament.
In fact, Iona’s closest defeat in those four consecutive appearances was a 13-point loss to Iowa State in 2016. As great as a coach as Cluess was for Iona—and he was fantastic—the Gaels were never able to secure that signature March Madness moment destined for future montages.
But new opportunities arrive with Pitino. Don’t expect top-five recruiting classes year in and year out. After all, Iona is still a tiny Catholic school in the MAAC. But the Hall of Fame coach should be able to attract some talent just based on his name alone.
And no coach gets to the Hall of Fame without being a good in-game tactician. Pitino isn’t a good in-game tactician. He’s regarded as one of the best X’s and O’s coaches of all time and he made his bones as a coach with his aggressive press defense at Kentucky.
Conquering the round of 64 would be a monumental achievement for the Gaels and if anyone can get them over the hump, it’s Pitino. He’s certainly capable of taking the program Cluess built into a small conference power and taking it to the next level.
However, Pitino’s resumé is as impressive as his rap sheet is long. He’s won two national championships as a head coach, but his 2013 title with the Louisville Cardinals was vacated following a sex scandal that took place under his watch.
A “pay for play” scandal was the final straw for Pitino at Louisville in 2017 and he was left in coaching limbo. He spent some time in Greece, but he was always going to come back where he’s had the most success in his career—the college ranks.
It’s hard to take anything Pitino ever says at face value, but he seems happy to be coming back to the New York area. Born in New York City and raised in Long Island, Pitino is New York for better or worse.
“I took the job wanting it to be my last job,” Pitino told the New York Post in a phone interview. “I spoke to numerous people about it and I’m glad I’m ending it with a small Catholic school that has the potential to be built up into a major power, regardless of what people think. I’m super excited about it. It’s a perfect fit at a perfect time in my life.”
Always a salesman, Pitino adds a line about why leaving Providence College—another small Catholic school tucked away in the northeast—sticks out as the biggest regret of his career.
“Some people think my biggest regret is leaving Kentucky because we went to three straight championship games,” Pitino said. “That’s really not true. My biggest regret in coaching was leaving Providence College. They were two magical years in my life. It was a small Catholic school with a small gym I loved so much. I’m going back to a similar situation. I know I’ll love it equally the same.”
The administration, namely athletic director Matt Glovaski, is excited about the flashy hire.
“His energy, desire, willingness to build a winning program will be a great fit for Iona,” Glovaski told Jon Rothstein of CBS.
This will be his first gig since his unceremonious exit from Louisville and all eyes will be on Iona next season. If Pitino wins, the baggage he’s bringing won’t seem so heavy.