5 big questions looming over Rick Pitino in his return to college basketball

Yahoo Sports

In a normal sports news cycle, the hiring of Rick Pitino back to college basketball after a three-year hiatus would be a seismic story. But these are not normal times, and the news cycle is spinning with much more important stories.

Pitino’s hiring by Iona College on Saturday failed to cause much of a stir. Not only is the nation shaken by the coronavirus, but Iona is located in New Rochelle, New York, which is one of the most impacted areas in the country.

With Pitino’s brilliance often comes complications. He’s one of this generation’s most gifted and accomplished coaches, but his programs have experienced intense NCAA scrutiny in recent years, which is why he was available to Iona in the first place.

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Here are five big questions looming over Iona’s hire:

1. How will Rick Pitino do there?

This one is easy. Pitino is going to win. He’s won big for 32 seasons at four different college basketball stops – Boston University, Providence College, Kentucky and Louisville. Pitino is perhaps the best individual development coach of this generation, he’s viewed as one of the best X’s and O’s coaches and has shown the ability to build programs.

The cash register will also be ringing at Iona, too. Pitino’s arrival will mean bigger crowds, exponentially more attention and television exposure. (It’s hard to imagine Pitino not returning to Madison Square Garden next season.)

It’s a total paradigm changer, as Iona has already felt a precipitous season-ticket request bump at the 2,578-seat Hynes Athletic Center. (Pitino is expected to make less than $1 million annually, which could grow with bonuses. He’ll make less than former Iona coach Tim Cluess, who was at nearly $1.1 million in the last reported tax filings.)

The scale of Pitino’s rebuild will be significant. Iona fell apart this season (12-17, 9-11 in MAAC) with Tim Cluess out due to health reasons. Iona reached the NCAA tournament for four consecutive seasons prior, a tribute to Cluess’ elite coaching job there. But his methods were taking primarily transfers and junior college players, a roulette that can leave rosters bare and a program vulnerable for APR issues.

Pitino has acknowledged needing to recruit some fifth-year players to help turn the roster over. This is not Pitino’s preferred method, as he prefers the bond of building relationships with players and developing them over time. Don’t expect Iona to magically appear in the NCAA tournament next season.

Panathinaikos coach Rick Pitino looks on during a game between Panathinaikos Opap Athens and FC Barcelona on Feb. 21, 2020. (Panagiotis Moschandreou/Getty Images)
Panathinaikos coach Rick Pitino looks on during a game between Panathinaikos Opap Athens and FC Barcelona on Feb. 21, 2020. (Panagiotis Moschandreou/Getty Images)

2. What risk is Iona taking here?

The risk of this hire falls squarely on the shoulders of Iona president Seamus Carey, whose prior relationship with Pitino instigated this move. Carey’s risk falls to the unpredictable hands of NCAA investigators and, likely, the committee on infractions.

No one knows what the NCAA will do. Few people outside the inner circle of Louisville’s NCAA infractions case have any idea what the NCAA is going to rule.

That leaves Carey’s biggest risk here that Pitino receives a lengthy suspension or a “show-cause” order that includes an ancillary punishment. A head coach responsibility charge against Pitino appears a plausible result. In June of 2017, the infractions committee found Pitino “violated head coach responsibility legislation,” which was tied to a former operations director using strippers to aid recruiting.

This current NCAA case involves allegations of two Pitino assistants who were alleged to be involved in brokering a deal to help buy recruit Brian Bowen for Louisville. All this occurred while the school was on probation.

Pitino didn’t have to serve the five-game suspension in the fallout from Louisville’s prior NCAA case, as he was fired when the federal basketball case broke. (Pitino denied knowledge of the escorts in that case, much like he’s denied knowledge of the deal for Bowen.) It’s reasonable to predict that Pitino escaping some type of suspension would be a surprise. How lengthy could it be? No one knows. But it’s naïve not to acknowledge the possibility.

In classic NCAA fashion, a ruling will not come quickly. While the notice of allegations is coming soon, lawyers familiar with the timeline of these types of cases predict no ruling until the fall of 2021.

Attorney Stu Brown, a veteran of NCAA cases, says there’s “some risk” involved on Iona’s part. He also sees Pitino as the type of name that could be made an example of.

“He’s clearly an NCAA enforcement staff target,” said Brown, who has no ties to the Louisville case. “The enforcement staff would say, ‘We don’t target people like that.’ To which I’d say, ‘I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Arizona.’ For better or worse, that program is going to be under more NCAA scrutiny than if they hired anyone else.”

3. What happens if Pitino gets an NCAA “show-cause” penalty?

 If Pitino gets a so-called “show-cause” penalty from the NCAA, that could prove interesting. The point of “show-cause” is mostly a scarlet letter to dissuade schools from hiring a coach who has violated rules.

Iona got ahead of that, having already hired Pitino. It’s considered rare in NCAA history that a school would hire a coach in the throes of a major investigation before that investigation is ruled on. But schools are increasingly thumbing their noses at NCAA rules.

The NCAA could still include in the “show-cause” a clause like it did to Bruce Pearl after his brush with the NCAA at Tennessee. In that case, Pearl had a three-year “show-cause” that included a recruiting ban. Pearl abided by that for the final five months after he was hired at Auburn. (The strictest “show-cause” punishments include bans from “all athletically related duties.”)

Unless it’s the most severe of findings, a potential “show cause” wouldn’t end Pitino’s time at Iona. It would still be a bad look for Carey and athletic director Matthew Glovaski if they didn’t do their homework and significant reverberations arose. At that time, many more people will be paying attention.

Overall, Iona’s move to hire Pitino is emblematic of how little schools respect the NCAA in 2020. Any stigma tied to coaches who’ve been found to violate NCAA rules or accused of violating them is practically gone. Iona’s game of chicken with the NCAA enforcement department is the same one being played from Arizona to Auburn and from Kansas to Cal State Northridge. There’s so little faith the NCAA can enforce its rules, even with the unprecedented federal information, school presidents like Carey are simply ignoring the potential of NCAA fallout.

Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals reacts in the first half of a game during the 2017 NCAA tournament. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals reacts in the first half of a game during the 2017 NCAA tournament. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. Who will Pitino hire on his staff?

Part of Pitino’s downfall was poor staff choices at Louisville. He trended in a direction of more player procurement than actual coaches.

Expect Pitino to be judicious in his hiring, especially with at least the possibility of someone needing to step into the interim role. Pitino will stress familiarity, something that was lacking with former Louisville assistant Jordan Fair.

The more experienced coaches in the Pitino basketball tree include two recently fired coaches – Scott Padgett at Samford and Allen Edwards at Wyoming. Former Eastern Kentucky coach Dan McHale, a former Iona assistant, has also worked for Pitino. He’s at New Mexico as an assistant.

Dillon Avare, the son of Pitino business partner Rick Avare, could join in an operations role. The operations assistants at Seton Hall and Minnesota, Kyle Smyth and Ryan Livingston, make sense as potential assistants. Former Iona operations director Casey Stanley, now at Arkansas State, could also emerge. All those coaches have ties to Pitino’s tree.

In many ways, it’s more difficult to be a MAAC assistant than an ACC assistant. While there’s less cheating on the mid-major and low-major level, it requires more evaluation skills, contacts and legwork.

“Call me delusional, I don’t think he can go get four- and five-star recruits,” said a veteran Division I coach. “Is a kid really going to go there over Dayton, Rhode Island and Clemson?”

5. Who is celebrating the most?

The once-proud Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has fallen in a rut. Long a threat to deliver a March darling, the MAAC’s relevancy has plummeted in recent years. The league finished 28th of 32 leagues in 2019 in KenPom rankings, an astounding fall for a league that earned two bids to the NCAA tournament in 2012. (The average KenPom league finish for the MAAC from 2006 to 2011 was 16.5.)

Coaches and administrators in recent years point to questionable league-mandated scheduling practices, a mostly non-linear television contract that’s hurt exposure and the rise of the Ivy and Patriot League. For years, the MAAC was the third-best league in the northeast corridor behind the Big East and Atlantic 10. That’s no longer the case.

There’s also been significant sideline brain drain, as coaches like Fran Fraschilla (Manhattan to St. John’s), John Beilein (Canisius to Richmond) and Kevin Willard (Iona to Seton Hall) all used the league as a launching pad. The last coach to jump up to a power conference from the MAAC was Ed Cooley from Fairfield to Providence in 2011. 

MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor has been in his job since 1988. Pitino’s presence presents unprecedented opportunities for exposure for the league. Is it well positioned to exploit them?

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