Reusse: Pitino needs to go, regardless of how Gophers finish season

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Patrick Reusse, Star Tribune
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There has not been a prominent coach in Minnesota in the past half-century to accomplish so little and receive as many extensions as Richard Pitino, who had to be hearing the bell toll on his Gophers tenure inside the COVID quiet of Williams Arena on Thursday night.

Pitino had thrilled the Gophers loyalists with an 18-15 record that included 6-12 in the Big Ten in 2014-15, his second season. The Alabama job was open and, legend has it, Richard's father, Rick — then still an influential coach at Louisville — had called friends in the Birmingham media with a request to mention his son as a candidate.

Other sources said Richard Pitino never had a chance, but it served as athletic director Norwood Teague's excuse to offer a coach he had hired two years earlier a contract extension on Woody's way out the door.

If young Richard actually had an Alabama option and had gone there, he would've been hitting the bricks a couple of years ago. Avery Johnson was hired at 'Bama in 2015, went 75-62 overall and 34-38 in the SEC, and was fired after the 2018-19 season.

You think Richard would've done better in Tuscaloosa? Not a chance.

Pitino had his best Gophers season in 2016-17, overall 24-10 and his lone winning season in the Big Ten at 11-7. Teague's replacement, Mark Coyle, rushed to give him extension No. 2.

Then, Coyle sneaked in extension No. 3 under the cover of the Final Four being in Minneapolis in April 2019.

That one-year extension was announced in a news dump, with Coyle not taking questions from local reporters. Pitino had secured his lone NCAA tournament victory — over Louisville, after his father had been fired — but it would seem the previous extension should have been executed in anticipation of that modest level of success.

The Gophers reverted to lousy form in 2019-20, 15-16 overall and 8-12 in the Big Ten. There was that stirring victory over Northwestern, 74-57, in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, before the season was shut down.

And now on Thursday night, those same 'Cats, losers of 13 straight, delivered an emphatic message to Coyle: Pandemic finances, a couple of more wins before the season ends … no matter.

Richard has to go.

A couple of weeks ago, I offered a spoof that Coyle could fire Pitino, and then bring him back a month later, and at 38 he still would have the youngest coach in Big Ten — and this time with experience.

That was before the Gophers lost 67-59 to Northwestern, before they scored 13 straight points to take a 17-3 lead against a team that had not won since December, before Pitino watched his team continue to fire away from three-land while going 4-for-27.

There are plenty of post-Pitino possibilities. To name three:

• Brian Dutcher. Successful at San Diego State. He'll be 62 before next season, so a five-year contract and a young staff — Ryan Saunders? — would be perfect.

• Craig Smith. He's done well at Utah State, he's from Stephen, Minn., but he's an over-the-top energy guy, probably with acronyms and slogans. One of those is enough.

• Ben Johnson. He's 40 now. De La Salle. Former Gopher. Popular with AAU coaches in Minnesota. Left Pitino to become assistant at Xavier.

The Gophers are headed to pathetic Nebraska (1-14 in the Big Ten) on Saturday with these conference numbers in eight regular seasons: 54-93 (.367) overall and 14-59 (.192) on the road.

We saw some amazing wins on the Barn's white floor, starting on Christmas night vs. Iowa, but now we've been seeing the reality of Pitino's eight seasons:

An average Big Ten record of 7-13, if prorated over the 20-game format.

Mr. Coyle, do everyone a favor, including Richard, and advise him that if he goes after it hard, maybe he can get that Boston College job.

Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing sports@startribune.com and including his name in the subject line.