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Rick Pitino hired by Iona

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Pitino has returned to college basketball.

Louisville v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

UPDATE

The Iona Gaels have officially hired Rick Pitino as their next head coach.


With the college basketball season coming to a screeching halt due to the Coronavirus, it seems only fitting that the one man sitting on pause the longest - Rick Pitino - might finally be on the fast track back to the sidelines.

Per Adam Zagoria, a college basketball insider and former beat writer for Iona College, Pitino is a serious candidate to replace Tim Cluess, who resigned on Friday for personal reasons. Cluess led Iona to six NCAA tournament appearances over ten seasons, but missed all of 2019-20 with an undisclosed health issue.

Former college basketball coach Matt Doherty is actually hearing Pitino will be Iona’s next head coach.

Adding to this, Matt Norlander of CBS Sports reports that Pitino has already told his current players that he’s leaving Greece for the college ranks.

Since being fired as Louisville’s head basketball coach in October of 2017, Pitino has been linked to numerous college and NBA jobs and is currently in his second stint as the head coach for Panathinaikos, one of the top team’s in the EuroLeague. He recently returned to his home in Florida after Greece’s professional league suspended play because of the coronavirus outbreak and has already been linked to several coaching vacancies.

Iona College plays in the 11-team Metro Athletic Conference and finished sixth this past season, going 12-17 overall and 9-11 in conference play. The Gaels play in the 2,578 seat Hynes Athletics Center, a multi-purpose arena that serves as the home for men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball, a far cry from the capacity of Rupp Arena (20,545) or KFC Yum! Center (22,090).

But don’t let the small, mid-major tag fool you as the Iona job has some very real possibilities for Pitino, who is itching to restore his reputation as one of the nation’s elite coaches. So what’s different about this particular rumor?

Let’s connect the dots:

  • Pitino was born in New York City and was the team captain of his St. Dominic High School basketball team in Oyster Bay, Long Island, just 33 miles from Iona’s campus in New Rochelle, NY. A return home would be a full-circle moment for the 67 year-old Pitino.
  • Despite two stints in the Bluegrass (Kentucky and Louisville), Pitino is an East Coast guy through and through, previously coaching the NBA’s New York Knicks and Boston Celtics and leading Providence College to the Final Four in 1987. If he’s ever going to make a return to the college game, all signs point toward New York City and the surrounding area.
  • Most importantly, Pitino is heavily connected to some top boosters at Iona, including Robert LaPenta, a highly-influential member of the Iona Board of Trustees, who previously shared ownership of a race horse with Pitino during his time in Kentucky. LaPenta recently cut the ribbon on Iona’s new $38 million LaPenta School of Business, donating $17.5 million, the largest monetary gift in Iona’s history. Sources say that LaPenta has enough clout to get a deal done, assuming Pitino can get out of his current contract with Panathinaikos that runs through the summer of 2021.
  • Pitino has also been strategic in clearing a path for his return, settling lawsuits with both the University of Louisville and Adidas, and dodging any criminal charges during multiple scandals in a 17-year career at Louisville. To date, there has been no public disclosure on what sanctions, if any, Pitino would face from the NCAA if he returned to college basketball.
  • Finally, a new HBO documentary, The Scheme, will be released on March 31st that will chronicle the role of Christian Dawkins in the 2017 college basketball recruiting scandal that led to Pitino’s dismissal at Louisville. Dawkins has testified that Pitino had no knowledge of the paying of top recruits. Could this change public perception?

Elected to the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, Pitino is one of only two coaches to take three different schools (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) to the Final Four. Of course, the other is John Calipari (Massachusetts, Memphis and Kentucky), who was recently named the SEC Coach of the Year for the fourth time. Both won national titles at Kentucky - Pitino in 1996 and Calipari in 2012 - with Pitino leading Louisville to another championship in 2013 that was later vacated by the NCAA.

Off the court, Pitino certainly has a sordid history that would turn off many college programs, especially with uncertainty as to how the NCAA would respond to a possible return. However, on the court, there’s no denying that Pitino is one of the greatest college coaches of all-time and would infuse new life into any program looking to make a big splash for next season.

Leading the charge for redemption is Dick Vitale, a long-time Pitino friend and confidant, who’s been a relentless advocate for Pitino’s return on social media, regularly tweeting out support for the Hall of Famer, who’s been named the head coach of the Greek national team that will try to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

So far, any support for a return to the college game has been met with resistance and NBA owners have been reluctant to hire the former Celtics President, GM and Head Coach after a disastrous three-and-a-half years in Boston that resulted in a 102-146 record.

But that hasn’t stopped Pitino from making his case to return to college basketball, proclaiming his innocence, and clamoring for someone, anyone, to give him a second chance. Ironically, it just might be a complete stoppage of organized basketball and another asterisk in the NCAA record book - a missing national champion for 2020 - that gets Rick Pitino back to the Big Dance.