The NCAA may have canceled its basketball tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic, but college basketball still produced a shocker on Saturday. Hall of Famer Rick Pitino is returning to the college ranks as Iona’s new head coach.
Pitino, 67, coached last season in Greece after Louisville fired him in the fall of 2017. The school terminated its contract with Pitino after he was implicated by federal prosecutors as being part of a wide-ranging scheme that included money being funneled to the family of a Cardinals recruit. Pitino has vehemently denied the allegation.
Iona announced that Pitino had been hired on its website and social media platforms.
Pitino, who coached Kentucky to the 1996 national championship and Louisville to the 2013 national championship (since vacated), takes over for West Hempstead product Tim Cluess, who stepped down after 10 years to deal with a health matter that kept him off the sideline this season.
“Rick is a Hall of Fame coach who has won at the highest levels and he is committed to leading our student-athletes and our program to national prominence,” Iona athletic director Matthew Glovaski said in the announcement. “He brings passion and energy and shares our desire to build a winning program that will make our community proud.”
Pitino was born in Manhattan but grew up on Long Island, where he attended St. Dominic and captained its basketball team. The first of his many head-coaching jobs was at Boston University. After a stint as a Knicks assistant, he took over at Providence, which he took to the 1987 Final Four with Long Islander Billy Donovan at point guard. It was the first of Pitino’s seven (two since vacated) trips to the Final Four. His coaching record in college is 647-271.
He also coached in the NBA with the Knicks (1987-89) and Celtics.
“My passion in basketball started in New York and will end there at Iona College,” Pitino said in the announcement. “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 40 years.”
One unknown behind the move is whether the NCAA will hand down a penalty to Pitino for the problems at Louisville; it did not at the time.
Louisville had to vacate 123 wins between 2010 and 2014 — including the 2013 national championship — because the program was found to have used strippers to lure recruits to sign. Pitino denied knowledge of the practice but did serve a five-game suspension for failing to properly monitor his team.
Pitino is one of college basketball’s most successful coaches — he was 770-271 on the court before the wins were vacated — and with this move, the Gaels not only could remain one of the area’s top programs but could become a college basketball destination.
“There is a real professionalism in how things are run here and this is a very tight, strong community,” Pitino said. “The priority in New Rochelle right now is helping students continue their education online in light of the coronavirus, and I very much look forward to the day when the community is back on campus and to get to work on further elevating this strong program.”
Pitino’s coaching file
1974-76 Hawaii assistant
1976 Hawaii interim head coach
1976-78 Syracuse assistant
1978-83 Boston University head coach
1983-85 Knicks assistant
1985-87 Providence head coach
1987-89 Knicks head coach
1989-97 Kentucky head coach
1997-2001 Boston Celtics head coach
2001-17 Louisville head coach
NCAA titles: 2 (Kentucky 1996, Louisville 2013-vacated)
Final Four appearances: 7 (2012, 2013 vacated)
NBA coach of the year: 1987