By Lenn Robbins
The Gym Rat Coach is back.
Back in the metropolitan area where his love affair with basketball began. Back in the college ranks, which he is more suited to than the NBA. Back in the gym of a small Catholic college not that different from his prep days at St. Dominic of Oyster Bay.
The shock is where Rick Pitino has resurfaced.
It is not the NBA, or a power five school, or a Big East school such as Providence, where he first garnered national attention. Iona College, a birthplace of college basketball coaches, announced Saturday that Pitino, one of the most polarizing figures in the game, will coach the Gaels next season.
It immediately makes Iona’s games and practices must-see basketball. On and off the court, Pitino stirred the pot with his, how do we phrase it, passionate and competitive nature.
Those traits helped Pitino win two NCAA titles, a Greek Cup and Greek Basket League championship and transforming the 1988-89 Knicks into the Bomb Squad, the most exciting show in the NBA.
His high-strung persona also found him embroiled in an alleged pay-for-play scandal at Louisville, a lawsuit against the university and Adidas, an extortion case in which a Pitino admitted to having an extra-marital sex with a woman who tried to extort him, and almost started a Civil War in basketball-crazed Kentucky by winning NCAA titles at with the Wildcats and then Cardinals (vacated).
But what can never be questioned is Pitino’s standing as one of the greatest innovators and motivators in the game. His before and after records are astonishing:
BU was 10-15 before Pitino arrived; 17-9 in his first season. Kentucky was 13-19; 22-6 in Pitino’s second season. The Knicks were 24-58 before Pitino; 52-30 in his second season. Louisville was 12-19 before; 19-13 the next.
After playing point guard at UMass, Pitino began his coaching career as an assistant coach in Hawaii. The journey led to Syracuse, Boston College, the Knicks, Providence College, the Knicks (head coach), Kentucky, Celtics, Louisville, Greece and now Westchester County.
Iona is in many ways the perfect ending. He has made enough money to not need another big payday. He doesn’t need more validation, yet craves it.
This will be coaching at its purist – college players who have not been fawned over since they were in junior high.
Pitino takes over for Tim Cluess, who missed this season with illness. Cluess had followed in the footsteps of Jim Valvano, Tim Welsh, Jeff Ruland and Kevin Willard – Iona coaches that won and went on.
“My passion in basketball started in New York and will end there at Iona College,” Pitino said in the statement. “Tim Cluess has done a spectacular job creating success and a winning spirit. I wish Tim a speedy recovery and Iona will always cherish his accomplishments.
“At Iona, I will work with the same passion, hunger and drive that I’ve had for over forty years. There is a real professionalism in how things are run here and this is a very tight, strong community.”
True. The Westchester County college has a rabid fan base that enjoys heated rivalries with Fordham, Manhattan and other Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference schools.
It isn’t hard to imagine him leading the Gaels into next year’s NCAA Tournament and scarring – if not upsetting – a much higher seed. Pitino took the Friars to the 1987 Final Four.
Will he have that level of success at Iona? Doubtful. But the Hynes Center just became one of the top basketball labs in the country.