Richard Pitino’s Gophers Tenure is Hanging in the Balance

On April 3, 2014, Richard Pitino stood on a ladder, his right hand raised triumphantly with a freshly-snipped net clasped in his fingers. His father Rick, a NCAA champion himself just a year prior, looked on proudly. His daughter Ava, perhaps too young to grasp the accomplishment, just smiled at all the commotion. The Gophers were NIT champions, having knocked off Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs in a two-point thriller.

This wasn’t a trophy to build a legacy upon, but it was a launching pad for a scuffling program and a disillusioned fan base, or so it seemed.

It was Year 1 of the Richard Pitino Era, and the 31-year-old had already logged wins over Ohio State, Wisconsin and No. 1 Indiana. After a ragged spell under Tubby Smith that delivered one NCAA Tournament victory in six seasons, there was finally renewed momentum within the program. “This is hopefully just the beginning for me,” said Pitino after the postgame celebration at Madison Square Garden that long-ago night.

Just over two years later, an NIT title seems about as likely as a blind heave from three-quarters court. With the athletic department seemingly in shambles and Mark Coyle – a man gifted in rescuing fledgling programs from scandalous situations – now its new warden, Pitino finds himself on a short leash entering the fourth year of his coaching stint – ironically, as one of the longest-tenured head coaches in town.

‘Failing to meet expectations’

When three Gophers players were suspended for the remainder of the 2016 season after a sexual-explicit video was posted on social media, the team released a generic statement indicating that freshman Kevin Dorsey, Jr., freshman Dupree McBrayer and sophomore Nate Mason had failed “to meet the expectations and obligations of the team.”

That may as well be a tagline for the last two years of Gophers basketball.

While each of the last two seasons carried different sets of expectations, both could be firmly classified as underachievements. The 2014-15 product returned all significant contributors from the NIT title team with the exception of Austin Hollins, and a return trip to the NIT would have been a disappointment with such a senior-laden roster. As it turned out, even the consolation tournament was unattainable for Pitino in his second season.

The Gophers lost three members of the team before the conference slate even began. Zach Lofton was dismissed for the usual “failure to meet expectations and obligations,” Josh Martin opted to transfer and Daquein McNeil was dismissed after allegedly choking his girlfriend. The Gophers then began the conference season with five straight losses and finished 6-12 in the Big Ten, losing eight games by six points or less. They didn’t play postseason basketball.

The 2015-16 bunch was among the rawest in the Big Ten with Pitino expecting to “rebuild big time.” The bar was set low, but losses to South Dakota, South Dakota State and Milwaukee mired the season before the Gophers even entered conference play. The team’s 2-16 Big Ten mark didn’t tell the true story, however, of a team whose biggest enemy was itself. Carlos Morris, one of two seniors on the team, was dismissed after an apparent shouting match with the coach. Then came the sex video on Twitter that led to three suspensions and forced the Gophers to play multiple walk-ons in their embarrassing Big Ten Tournament loss to Illinois.

Despite the mounting losses and insubordinate roster, there was still a sunrise coming in 2016-17 with Pitino’s monster recruiting class. He’d landed Minnesota’s own Amir Coffey of Hopkins – son of former Gopher Richard Coffey – and Michael Hurt of Rochester, as well as Eric Curry, one of the best big men in the state of Arkansas. In addition, transfers Reggie Lynch (Illinois State) and Davonte Fitzgerald (Texas A&M) were likely to start after sitting out a year due to transfer regulations.

Lynch, a to-be junior, was especially intriguing as a rim-protecting center and an offensive force in the paint. Chiefly, he was a massive upgrade over incumbent big man Bakary Konate.

Half of Pitino’s 16 recruits through his first three years have either transferred, been dismissed or been suspended.

Then came May 8. Lynch was jailed under suspicion of sexual assault and subsequently suspended. Though he’s since been released, there is a continuing investigation that will keep Lynch off the court until its conclusion. Another black eye for the Gophers program. Another failure to meet obligations.

Local columnist Patrick Reusse astutely pointed out in a recent piece that half of Pitino’s 16 recruits through his first three years have either transferred, been dismissed or been suspended. That’s alarming. The question is: What sort of blame does Pitino deserve for the myriad transgressions within his program since that happy net-cutting in 2014?

On one hand, can Pitino control that Dorsey’s sexual exploits were posted on Twitter? Likely not. In fact, Pitino has done everything he can to promote responsible social media behavior, including a Twitter ban in 2015 that the coach took part in himself.

The assaults of McNeil and Lynch are scary allegations, however, and may be an indictment of the type of character requirements Pitino is placing on his prospective recruits. McNeil, especially, has proven to be a loose cannon since his dismissal. He missed a court date last May, then was arrested again in July for a second assault on the same victim.

In the cases of Lofton, Martin and Morris, there were ostensibly behind-the-scenes issues. Whether the issues were between player and coach or player and player, they boiled down to disagreements within the Gophers basketball culture. Lofton and Martin displayed poor body language very early in their transitory Gophers careers and seemed displeased with the way Pitino used them. Morris, a quiet person by nature, allegedly argued with Pitino after being benched late in the 2015-16 season. There have also been issues with to-be senior Charles Buggs, who – like a step-son seeking his new father’s approval – has yet to earn much favor from Pitino as the final leftover from the Tubby regime.

Speaking of Smith, the veteran coach had his own shortcomings with retaining recruits. Royce White, Paul Carter, Justin Cobbs, Devoe Joseph and Colton Iverson all left under Smith’s watch with many having great success at their future stops, particularly White, who was taken in the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft.

That makes two straight men’s basketball coaches – hired by two different athletic directors – who have struggled to create a desirable culture in the U of M’s basketball program. Enter Mark Coyle, who now has a chance to turn things around.

A new sheriff in town

The University of Minnesota’s new athletic director, Mark Coyle, has a nose for chaos. Like Kerry Washington’s character on ABC’s Scandal, he makes problems go away.

At Boise State, Coyle inherited a department with rules violations in five sports that included “impermissible lodging, transportation, practice sessions, financial aid and cash payments,” according to an NCAA report. In a three-and-a-half-year span, he turned the department around with an emphasis on compliance. Boise State tennis coach Greg Patton told in 2015 how adept Coyle was at “putting out fires” by meeting face-to-face with athletes after rules infractions, wooing boosters with his personal charm and rebuilding the school’s image by getting involved in the community. “Our (men’s) basketball coach loves him,” Patton said less than a year ago. “They’ve improved that program a lot.”

At two previous stops, Coyle has adroitly brought a pair of proud universities out of shame and into prosperity with bold moves early in his tenure.

Coyle took over the Syracuse AD position in 2015 after Jim Boeheim’s men’s basketball team was punished and placed on probation for academic misconduct. In Coyle’s lone season overseeing the basketball program, he watched Boeheim’s Orange make a surprise run to the Final Four as a 10 seed and witnessed the women’s basketball team reach the title game. He also made waves in the football program by firing Scott Shafer before the last game of the regular season and eventually hiring Dino Babers.

At two previous stops, Coyle has adroitly brought a pair of proud universities out of shame and into prosperity with bold moves early in his tenure. He now faces a situation in Minnesota that is not completely identical, nor completely dissimilar. Some of the Gophers’ problems – unlike Boise State’s rules violations or Syracuse’s academic oversights — could be chalked up to isolated incidents, while others, like Pitino’s skirting of the private jet budget, are more chronic.

Pitino’s oversteps of the company budget have been well publicized, to be sure. Less so were reports of Pitino engaging in illegal recruiting practices overseas, which were less substantiated. Even if you ignore these macro errors, in the micro realm of in-game coaching Pitino’s teams have frequently melted down the stretch in close games, while the young head coach has not only got in a private argument with Morris that led to his dismissal, but he was seen on camera screaming at an assistant coach on the bench in a 2015 game. All signs point to a lack of discipline behind the bench.

Right now the Gophers basketball program is locked in a deadly cycle. It begins with losing, which leads to apathy, which leads to insubordination, which leads to discipline, which leads to more losing. Somehow, the cycle has to stop, and that’s where Coyle comes in. If it doesn’t drastically change by the end of this season, Pitino could be the latest Minnesota coaching casualty.

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