Pitino promises fast, fun game

Published 12:15 pm Sunday, April 7, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino might not have been the first choice by Minnesota to replace Tubby Smith, and questions about favoritism could follow him the rest of his career.

But neither the Gophers nor Pitino are about to apologize for who he is, or temper their confidence about what he can do at a program looking for a lift despite his limited prior experience.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Was it tough being Rick Pitino’s son?’ And it’s not. I’m extremely proud to be his son. I’m extremely fortunate to be his son. I embrace it every single day. I would be silly to hide from it. He’s a legend in this game,” said the 30-year-old Pitino at his introductory news conference Friday.

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Smith was fired after six seasons, a 46-62 record in Big Ten play and one NCAA tournament victory. Pitino, who signed a six-year contract worth at least $1.2 million annually, a little more than half of Smith’s yearly compensation, has been a head coach for one season.

He guided a Florida International team gutted by transfers and academic ineligibility to an 18-14 record that was the school’s first winning mark in 13 years. He spent three seasons as an assistant at Louisville under his father, coach Rick Pitino, and two more at Florida under coach Billy Donovan.

“I think his dad forced Richard to work his way up the ranks instead of just automatically giving him the job,” Donovan said. “He had to work for it.”

When Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague sought advice from Donovan during the search, Pitino’s name popped up immediately. Donovan described to Teague the “relentless” and “merciful” pressure that Rick Pitino once put on both his son and Donovan when they worked separately on the elder Pitino’s staffs.

“I certainly embrace the fact that I’m young. I don’t try to hide from it,” Pitino said. “I’ve had great relationships with my players at FIU. I have still great relationships with the players at Louisville and Florida. So we go about it in a different way.”

Teague declined to comment when asked about other candidates who might’ve been ahead of Pitino in the queue. Shaka Smart, Fred Hoiberg, Brad Stevens, Flip Saunders, Andy Enfield and Mick Cronin were all mentioned in various news reports as being considered.

“We were very pleased with the search. It unfolded just like we wanted,” he said.

Pitino’s short resume didn’t deter Minnesota, but it did reveal one conflict, at least according to information still available Friday afternoon on team websites for Florida International, Louisville and Florida. The profiles credited Pitino with working at the College of Charleston during the 2004-05 season, and Louisville’s bio for him specified CC’s 18-10 record that year.

Pitino was only at the South Carolina school for three months the summer after the 2004-05 season, shortly after he graduated from Providence, Gophers spokesman Matt Slieter said. Pitino said, through Slieter, that this was an oversight that will be corrected.

Smith’s firing brought him a $2.5 million buyout, even with his hire a week later at Texas Tech.

In Pitino’s contract, if he’s dismissed without just cause but gets a comparable job elsewhere, Minnesota is no longer on the hook for a buyout. Pitino’s buyout would be half of his $500,000 base salary and all of his $700,000 annual supplemental compensation for the remaining life of the deal.

Also of note in Pitino’s contract:

— He has pair of $400,000 bonuses for simply fulfilling the deal, one due on April 30, 2016 (if he stays three seasons and starts a fourth) and the other due on April 30, 2019 (if he stays through the current length of the contract).

— Among various industry standard perks is a $50,000 annual private jet allowance for university business more than 200 miles from campus. Smith did not have that.

— If Pitino leaves for another job before April 30, 2016, he would owe Minnesota $1.5 million. After that, if he were to skip out before his deal expires, he’d have to pay $500,000. Said Pitino: “Me and my wife talked about it last night, just how excited we were that we can finally be at a place that we hope to be for the rest of our lives and build something special.”

— The incentives in Pitino’s deal are considerably lower than Smith’s, though for finishing 10-8 in the conference or better, a feat Smith never pulled off, Pitino would receive $50,000. Pitino would get $250,000 for winning a national championship; Smith would’ve received $1.5 million. Pitino would get $25,000 for winning the Big Ten tournament; Smith would’ve received $250,000. And for a team grade-point average of 3.5 or better, Pitino would get $75,000; Smith would’ve received $150,000 for 3.25 and up.

Smith was promised a practice facility that almost every major program in the country has but is still in the planning stages at Minnesota. Pitino said he had “zero doubt” it would be built.

“The practice facility will come and when it does, it’ll be great. But there’s so much here we can use to our advantage and sell,” Pitino said.

So what happens when father and son are pursuing the same high school player?

“It’s game on. That’s the way I’m looking at it,” Pitino said, smiling. “Hopefully he fights fair, but I’m excited about it.”

The news conference on the raised Williams Arena floor had a pep-rally feel, with a full rotation of music by the band and clapping and cheering by the few hundred fans who watched from the seats. The entire Gophers team, wearing matching white golf shirts adorned with the school logo, watched from the floor while Pitino spoke.

Leading scorer Andre Hollins, a junior to be, said he believes every player will be back and spoke excitedly about the fast-and-fun style Pitino promised to employ, with full-court pressure defense and run-the-break offense.

“We’ve been kind of in limbo, just kind of waiting, just trying to see,” Hollins said. “There’ve been a lot of calls, a lot of people contacting us, trying to see what we’re going to do. But we just wanted to wait and see what Norwood had in store for us, and I think he made the right choice.”