CAREER RESTART: Rick Pitino is back and raring to go at Iona – The Providence Journal

Posted: April 18, 2020 at 5:44 pm

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Like so many of us, Rick Pitino is antsy. He has people to see, things to do.

Trapped in this stay-at-home world, Pitino is in Miami with his wife, Joanne, while scrambling to put together the pieces at his new job as the mens basketball head coach at Iona College.

"Im riding my bike a lot," Pitino said last week, "We just sold a house we bought when I went to the Celtics in 1997. Weve had Easter and Christmas here for years. It could fit all 12 of our grandchildren."

The eight-bed mansion at Indian Creek recently sold for $17 million, according to reports, so theres a lot of packing to do. But Pitinos focus lies elsewhere. After a three-season hiatus brought on by two major scandals that ended his run at Louisville, Pitino is back in college basketball. He says hes not listening to naysayers who have branded him a cheat. At 67 years old, he knows how fortunate he is that a pre-existing relationship with Ionas president, Seamus Carey, opened the door to a return that he wasnt sure would ever happen.

"Dick Vitale made a great point when he said that Jim Valvano told him that the best years of his life were coaching Iona College," Pitino said. "That had a lot to do with my decision because of my relationship with Providence College. Two of the most fun years of my life were at a small, Catholic college with a small campus and average facilities. Now Im getting back to that."

Pitino quickly clarified that statement, insisting that the PC of today is so very different from the mom-and-pop outfit it was back in the 1980s.

"Providence is a totally different place now," Pitino said, "but Iona is a campus you can walk in five minutes, like PC. Its near my home, its near my son [Ryan], its near Winged Foot [Golf Club] where Ive been a member for 25 years. It has everything youd want to finish your career. Its going back home."

Why is a Hall of Famer, a two-time national champion, ending his ride at Iona? Its a long story but lets just say that Pitino couldnt avoid trouble at Louisville. First, a staff member was running sex parties for recruits, players and others out of the teams dormitory. Pitino insists he knew nothing, conceding "that was reprehensible."

The sordid affair landed Louisville on probation, stripped the program of its 2013 national title and slapped Pitino with a "failure to monitor" penalty. Then, while on probation, Louisville was one of several programs named in an FBI sting operation into fraud and bribery in college basketball recruiting. Pitino was not named in the suit and insists he knew nothing about payments from Adidas and an assistant coach, Kenny Johnson, to recruit Brian Bowen.

Louisville fired Pitino. The stench of the two cases branded him a cheater in the eyes of the basketball world. Time was the only way to heal the wounds.

"The NCAA blackballed me," he said. "Schools would call the NCAA and theyd say, which was true, `We havent started our investigation because were waiting for the Southern District of New York [FBI] to get done with their investigation. But that kept me out."

Pitino poked around some jobs, including the one at the University of Rhode Island. When Dan Hurley left for Connecticut, URI officials didnt speak with him but Pitino says the programs most influential booster did.

"Ive been friendly with Tom Ryan and we talked and he was very excited. I was looking at it, certainly, but it didnt materialize," Pitino said.

There were other feelers, but the black cloud of the NCAA hung heavy. He spent the last two seasons coaching Greek pro power Panathinaikos and winning games in Milan, Moscow and Tel Aviv. Then came the call from Iona.

"I cant blame people," he said. "If you dont know me, I understand. The president of Iona knew me, he knew my values and knew how I coached players. If Im a president and reading stuff on the Internet, I wouldnt hire me, either, so I cant blame anybody."

Pitino knows that the scarlet letter will follow him through this time in New Rochelle. He will not admit guilt in the FBI case no way, no how.

"No matter how many times Id say Ive never given a player $5 or never cheated a day in my life with four different programs, some people wouldnt believe me," Pitino said. "My son [Richard] came to the best conclusion when he said `Dad, nobody cares. Get on with your life and just coach.

Pitino is indebted to Iona but can he really be satisfied battling St. Peters and Manhattan for supremacy in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference? He says this is his last stop. Hed like to build a "Gonzaga of the East" and concedes Iona outfoxed him with an ironclad buyout clause.

"We talked about salary and the president told me, 'Look, I cant pay you very much, but I told him I understood," Pitino said. "Then I got the contract and told Seamus I thought the buyout was a mistake because it was so high. He told me, `I believe you when you said youd finish your career at Iona, but not one person on the board of trustees believes you. "

Working from his estate in Miami, Pitino has cobbled together a top-flight recruiting class in the last month. He says he wants to play Kentucky, his son Richards team at Minnesota and maybe even Providence. He sees the Gaels playing some games at Madison Square Garden and being a regular March Cinderella.

So, NCAA issues be damned. Rick Pitino may be caged for the moment but hes back where he belongs.

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On Twitter: @KevinMcNamara33

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CAREER RESTART: Rick Pitino is back and raring to go at Iona - The Providence Journal

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April 18th, 2020 at 5:44 pm

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