Regional Sports

Staying put at Iona is Pitino’s best option

Photo: Vincent Carchietta/USA Today Sports

Rick Pitino will be back where he belongs on Saturday: Coaching the Iona Gaels in the NCAA Tournament.

After a two-year absence of coaching college basketball as a result of being fired by Louisville for partaking in a pay-for-play scheme involving a recruit, Pitino resurfaced last year at this time after being hired by Iona to replace an excellent coach in Tim Cluess, who retired for health reasons.

He needed Iona just as the university needed him. He yearned to get back to coaching college basketball again after being an outcast, and Iona sought a coach that can maintain the success that Cluess created with its basketball program. Both benefited from each other.

One wonders if Pitino is one and done at Iona, though. As in him leaving for greener pastures and coaching a major program again. Indiana is looking for a head coach after firing Archie Miller. UNLV could be a sleeping giant with the right coach, and the job is available after T.J. Otzelberger left the university as their head coach to coach Iowa State. Conventional wisdom says coaches like him use a program like Iona to rehab their image and get back to coaching a big-time program.

Pitino always is ambitious. He likes power, and he wants to coach on a big stage. Sorry, but Iona comes nowhere close to that for him. Lack of exposure on television and even in the local press does not satisfy his ego.

Here’s the question he must ask himself: Does he really need to coach a major program at this point in his life? He’s 68 years old. He accomplished so much as an NCAA college basketball coach with two national championships to show for it. He turned Kentucky and Louisville around with a national championship apiece to show for it. He led five different teams to the NCAA Tournament in Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, Louisville and Iona. He is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Pitino talked about wanting to make Iona as Gonzaga of the MAAC when he was hired. As in building a mid-major program into a national championship contender every year. Here’s his chance to make good on that. This would be the best challenge of his coaching career. It would be a great finish to an excellent coaching career if he can pull that off. It would be rewarding for him.

Coaching Indiana or UNLV does nothing for him. He already turned around two proud programs in his career. At Iona, he can do something because he can recruit not only the city’s best players but get players around the country because of the gravitas he brings.

He coaches in a New York suburb. He always loved coaching games there because he was a Long Island kid at one time. He can do good at home by putting Iona on the local and national college basketball map.

The Hall of Famer enjoyed coaching Iona this season despite men’s basketball team activities being on pause twice, including the second one that prevented the Gaels to complete the last five games of the regular season. He somehow coached Iona to the MAAC championship by winning four games in five nights in the MAAC Tournament at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

His best coaching job of the conference tournament came from willing Iona to play great defense against a MAAC title favorite Siena with five minutes to go. The Saints missed shots, and the Gaels capitalized it by going on a 16-0 run to take a 47-42 lead en route to a 55-52 victory. Pitino’s clock management and pressing defense put Iona in a position to succeed after falling behind most of the game. That was coaching right there, and from that game, it seemed like a forgone conclusion Iona would win the MAAC Tournament. By beating Siena, it gave the team the belief that they can win the MAAC Tournament.

It remains to be seen if the No. 15-seed Iona can upset No. 2 Alabama. The game will be interesting. If somehow Iona loses by a point or two, it would make more sense for Pitino to finish the job and keep building this program into a powerhouse than just bail.

Pitino claims Iona is the last stop of his career. But actions speak louder than words. He is not going to make his decision of what he’s doing right now when he has a job to do. He probably has no idea what he really wants to do. There’s no question he will think about what he wants to do.

Indiana or UNLV could be tempting for Pitino. He can win big there. He can be a conquering savior in either of those locales.

But if he stays at Iona, he would fulfill something special that would be memorable.

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