Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino sees no ceiling on what the Iona men’s basketball program could be. The newly-branded Gaels coach looks to one soaring small Catholic school on the other coast and sees no reason that Iona cannot fly as high.
“I wasn't looking to be back at a Power Five conference again,” Pitino said in a Monday interview on WFAN. “I was looking for a small campus that I could be part of the community that I could build into something really, really special, whether it's a Gonzaga, whether it's a Dayton, whether it's just a Catholic school that's something special.”
Pitino, one of Long Island’s most famous basketball exports, was hired Saturday to replace Tim Cluess to head up the Gaels after the West Hemstead product stepped down amid health concerns. Pitino hasn’t coached in college basketball since Louisville fired him in the fall of 2017 amid scandal and has coached professionals in Greece the past two seasons.
Pitino’s program at Louisville had to vacate wins from 2010 through 2014 after it was revealed that assistant coach Andre McGee used escorts and strippers to lure recruits. And his ouster came after he was implicated by prosecutors amid the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption as part of a pay-for-play scheme to land a recruit. Pitino has vehemently denied involvement in either transgression.
For this reason, Pitino said in the wide-ranging radio interview, he told Iona president Seamus Carey after he was hired “I've taken over this job. I don't have a chip on my shoulder. I have a boulder on my shoulder.”
Pitino’s record on the court is remarkable: His teams won 770 games, reached seven Final Fours and his 1996 Kentucky and 2013 Louisville teams won the national championship. More than a score of his former assistants have gone on to become head coaches. These make his vision for Iona actually seem plausible.
“We have to bring in seven, maybe eight players, and that's an awful lot,” Pitino said in the wide-ranging interview. “If Tim was there this year . . . the program would be in much better shape, so it probably is at its lowest point in 10 years. But the good thing? The NCAA, from what I understand, is going to pass a rule that will allow transfers to play right away.
“And when you need seven or eight players, you just got to make sure you take quality players that fit into your running, pressing style; that fit into a passionate, hungry and driven-type attitude. We’re going to look for those.”
Pitino has coached at the highest levels — with the Knicks and Celtics in the NBA as well as Kentucky, Louisville and Providence among his college stops — and the Iona opportunity was a way back in after he said he was “blackballed.”
But looking back on Louisville’s two black eyes during his final three seasons, he said, “I deserved to be fired by Louisville. Was I innocent of any wrongdoing? Yes, I was, but I was the leader and I deserve to be fired.
“Excuses, I always believe, are a sign of weakness and I made excuses for [it],” he said. “I should have just said ‘I hired [McGee], I take full responsibility, the ax should fall on me’, which it did. . . . I wish I would have said on the spot ‘I take full responsibility.’”
Pitino also hired the assistant coach Jordan Fair, who was implicated in funneling money to recruits. He said he did not expect the NCAA to issue a penalty for his role in the Louisville transgressions.
“People do it the wrong way, try to take shortcuts, [and] really you're going to pay the price and I paid the price in a great way,” Pitino said. “I've lost a lot of dignity by people doing it the wrong way.”
Asked if, as he has said, Iona will be his last coaching job he replied “I don't have a very large contract with Iona — I think it can be put on one page — but I can tell you right now the only school that could afford me, with my buyout, is Fort Knox University.”
In line with his ambitions, Pitino told The Dan Patrick Radio Show that he would like to Iona face Kentucky at the Garden in the Jimmy V Classic, named for famous Long Island basketball export Jim Valvano.
“I'm hiring a staff right now that I think will do Iona College proud,” Pitino said. “I've already hired two of the coaches. I've got two more to go and I'll put together a great staff that's going to do it the right way and hopefully carry what Tim Cluess built up and bring them to a level that Jim Valvano will be smiling and hugging with.”