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Well-traveled Rick Pitino proving at Iona you can go home again

Iona head coach Rick Pitino celebrates after Iona

Iona head coach Rick Pitino celebrates after Iona beat Fairfield in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament championship on March 13, 2021. Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

It is not the tidiest of feel-good stories. But Rick Pitino’s return to the NCAA Tournament is a feel-good story nonetheless.

More than 50 years after beginning his basketball career at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay, the Hall of Fame coach returned to the New York area to resurrect it.

You can say what you want about Pitino — and in the course of his controversy-marred coaching career, plenty has been said — but this season he again proved he is one of the greatest college coaches of his time.

This will be on full display Saturday when the 68-year-old Pitino and his 15th-seeded Iona team take the floor at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis to play second-seeded Alabama in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Pitino is the third NCAA coach to lead five different teams — in his case Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, Louisville and Iona — to the tournament.

Iona took a calculated gamble last March when it decided to hire Pitino to replace Tim Cluess, who was stepping down because of health concerns. At the time, Pitino was considered untouchable after multiple scandals, including an FBI investigation, led to his firing by Louisville.

Pitino, who declared at the time that he was done coaching college basketball, was coaching in Greece when Iona called last March.

"If Iona was in West Virginia or Kentucky or Pennsylvania, I would still be in Greece coaching in the Euro League," Pitino said in a video news conference this week. "Because it was back home, I wanted to return home for the last remaining years and get the opportunity to coach. I’m super-excited to be the head coach there."

Iona, located in Westchester County, where Pitino lived when he coached the Knicks in the 1980s, was far from a reclamation project when he became the coach. The team had a 12-17 record when the 2019-20 season was canceled because of COVID-19, but the program has a rich basketball tradition. Iona had been to seven straight MAAC title games before Pitino arrived, and this will be its fifth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Still, it’s been a pretty rough year. The virus forced the program to shut down four times this season. At one point, the team was sidelined for nearly two months after nine players, two coaches and two managers tested positive. Pitino revealed in January that he had contracted the virus.

As was the case so many times in the past for Pitino, his team came together and played well when it had to, eventually winning the MAAC Tournament last weekend. And now he’s back in the NCAA Tournament again.

Pitino, who has a 782-286 career coaching record, is the first coach to take three different teams to the Final Four. He won national championships at Louisville (2013) and Kentucky (1996) and also went to the Final Four with Providence in 1987.

Yes, he has collected plenty of baggage along the way, from the extortion trial of Karen Sypher to stripper parties for Louisville recruits that he maintained he had no knowledge of to the FBI investigation that was the final straw that led to his firing from Louisville in 2017.

Pitino didn’t do much for more than a year after that. Then an owner of a professional team in Greece came calling.

"My wife said, ‘You’re going,’ " he said. "She said you can’t live without it. She was tired watching me with sadness stay up in the middle of the night and watch the Phoenix Suns play at 11. She said I need to go and I would regret it if I didn’t."

Though he didn’t view it that way at the time, Greece was the first step in his road back. When you are talented — whether it be in sports or life — you get second and third and fourth chances.

The Gaels probably won’t beat sharp-shooting Alabama, but as the No. 9 seed, Iona wasn’t supposed to win the MAAC Tournament either.

Interestingly, the gym they will be playing in is the same one where the climactic game of the movie "Hoosiers" was filmed. You may recall that the coach of the Hickory High School team (played by Gene Hackman) that improbably won the Indiana state championship had a checkered past.

Either way, Pitino feels pretty good about where he is right now.

"You could come to me with the greatest job on Earth and I would not consider it," he said. "I came home to coach and end my career at a small Catholic school."

There is a nice symmetry to it.

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