Rick Pitino spent a sleepless night Saturday, not sure his Iona team was fully prepared to play Quinnipiac.
“I was panicking,” he said, “because there was a high school tournament in our gym. We’ve bought Concordia College, so we had another gym, so we went to Concordia and the softball team was in there. You make adjustments, but it scared the hell out of me because it’s the first time it happened to me in my long career.
“It’s nobody’s fault. You’re at Iona and you share the facilities, and it was too cold for the softball team to go outside. I tried to get them into Yankee Stadium, but it wasn’t available.”
There was a time when Pitino, the Hall of Fame coach, might have demanded Yankee Stadium be unlocked, rather than scramble for a place to practice the day before a game.
But it’s a part of his $1 million-a-year deal now, and he could laugh it off Sunday because, at 69, he’s learned to roll with punches — he’s had a ton of practice at that — and his team survived a worthy opponent, Quinnipiac, 76-61 on Sunday at People’s United Center.
The Gaels (16-3, 8-0 MAAC) may be considered a mid-major, but Pitino has forged and tempered his kind of team, and he has big ideas.
“It’s getting there,” he said. “I’m at a stage in my life where I’m enjoying teaching the game of basketball, and that’s it. There’s nothing good about being 69, but you learn what not to do, all the time, and you gain wisdom in your life. You don’t have to coach for money. You don’t have any motivation to move up the ladder and go anywhere else. You’re just teaching and playing.”
Pitino, who first grabbed attention at a mid-major, Boston University in the late 1970s, has been a coaching superstar, for reasons right and wrong, since he led Providence to the Final Four in 1987. He has had, and left four dream jobs, the Knicks and Celtics in the NBA, and Kentucky and Louisville, winning NCAA titles in both places. He left Louisville amid various scandals and investigations, but found some peace coaching in Greece and then settled on one more dream gig, as he has defined it, to end his career at a small Catholic School in New York, where he was born and raised, or New England.
Iona, perennial power in the MAAC before Tim Cluess had to retire for health reasons, coaxed Pitino to New Rochelle, where in his first season he led the Gaels to the MAAC title and made them the fifth school he has coached in the NCAA Tournament. You can believe his days of wandering and controversies are over, or choose to suspect he’s got more in mind than he is letting on, but if Pitino is not relaxed, all in and enjoying himself immensely here, it’s a heck of an actor.
“It’s a wonderful experience,” he said. “I really, really enjoy it, and I truly believe we can be as good as the highest level. I think we can become something special. You can’t say Gonzaga, because they recruit top five, top 10, but we can become a Loyola of Chicago if we keep recruiting well.”
Loyola was in the Final Four in 2018 and the Sweet 16 last March. A week or so ago, Pitino tweeted out a long list of teams he considered “Final Four prospects.” He included Iona. “Slipped one in there to see if you were paying attention,” he posted.
Pitino confessed his uneasy sleep was about more than just the missed practice. He was effusive in his praise of Quinnipiac coach Baker Dunleavy and his offense.
“I coached against Frank McGuire in his last game, Dean Smith,” Pitino said. “Baker Dunleavy, when you play against his teams, they’re as tricky as any team I’ve ever coached against. He’s really, really a terrific coach.”
Quinnipiac (10-7, 5-4) beat Pitino last once year and, in this first meeting this season, gave it a run. Trailing 21-8 at the start, Quinnipiac staged a 17-2 run to take the lead. The Bobcats stayed basket-for-basket until Tyson Jolly buried a 3-pointer to put Iona ahead 54-51 with 8:26 left. Then Iona, used to playing in tough games, posting notable wins over Alabama, Yale and Harvard and surviving several tests in the conference, pulled away. The Gaels were led by Jolly, who scored 20.
“As long as we stay together,” said Jolly, a fifth year senior who played previously at Baylor and SMU, “and coach always puts us in position to win, we always have a chance to pull it out.”
Iona’s steady pressure prompted 17 turnovers, and adjusted to take away Quinnipiac’s 3-pointer in the second half. Through conventional recruiting and the transfer portal, Pitino has built a team that has above average size and athletic ability for the MAAC.
“He just runs a program that has every aspect running on all cylinders,” Dunleavy said. “A lot of coaches are strong recruiters, and the coaching part of it they have to figure out. He’s got a two-way team. They’re huge, they’re skilled, and where I think he doesn’t get enough credit is getting them better. His player development program is tremendous. So as a coach who hasn’t been in it as long as Rick Pitino, coaches of my generation look at him and just try to learn.”
Age and assorted baggage have not weighed down on Pitino’s ability to coach, nor to tell an entertaining story. His favorite tales now are from his couple of years overseas. He spun one about waiting for a 3 a.m. flight out of Tel Aviv when a couple of players offered to buy him a beer. “I ordered a beer and they ordered double Jack [Daniels] and Cokes,” Pitino said. “I said, ‘No wonder we’re losing.’”
Europe was just like the NBA, he said, “except you fly coach.” In the MAAC, Pitino shares his gym, works in front of small crowds like the 1,348 at Quinnipiac, and has to ride coaches to and from the games. But by all appearances, he’s having himself a ball without all the folderol.
“You’ve heard all your life, ‘One rotten apple spoils the bunch,’” Pitino said. “You get one turd on your team, it kills the team. We don’t have any. We have all great guys, and by the way, they’re big-time basketball players. What makes it fun is the guys you coach.”
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com.