Three years and six days ago, the statement came with the customary Rick Pitino flourish of counterfeit finality. “My passion in basketball started in New York and will end there at Iona College,” he said upon being named the coach of the Gaels. Right state, wrong school, it turned out.
Maybe. There’s no telling whether the St. John’s job Pitino accepted Monday will be the end, either. Even at age 70, he remains a constant coaching flight risk.
When Iona rescued Pitino from Grecian exile, hiring him while an NCAA investigative cloud still hovered over his head, the school probably bought the line. It probably believed his Hall of Fame career would end in the hinterlands of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. How naive.
It was just the latest grandiose but disposable declaration from college basketball’s master of hyperbole. Every head-coaching job Pitino has had was the best one he’s ever had and the last one he’d ever want—and there have been eight of them now in the United States alone. The math doesn’t quite add up, but the charismatic sales job remains effective.
There were two jobs that didn’t end well, resigning from the Boston Celtics before he could be dismissed in 2001 and being fired at Louisville in ’17. (He put in 16 years at Louisville and, plausibly, could have retired there, if not for the succession of scandals.) In the other five, Rick was the one doing the leaving.
St. John’s fans can ask Iona fans, Kentucky fans, New York Knicks fans, Providence fans and Boston University fans about the Pitino experience. He won big, his teams were entertaining and he basked in the adoration—it was all incredibly fun. And then he was gone, heading for something brighter or richer, yearning for that next adrenaline shot that came with being pursued, being hired and becoming the New Savior In Town.
When Pitino departed Kentucky for the Celtics before he landed at arch-rival Louisville four years later, a wounded Wildcats fan put it this way to me: “You just wish being at Kentucky meant as much to him as it meant to us.” That level of mutual commitment might have been too much to ask of a native New Yorker with a big-city soul, but Pitino sold it so well—“The Roman Empire of College Basketball”—that they believed it.
Pitino should be able to get the best job he can. St. John’s should be able to hire the best coach it can. This may be a marriage that produces basketball bliss. Let’s just understand the transactional nature of the arrangement, as Pitino takes one more big swing at a place that can facilitate it in a way Iona could not.
Ultimately, Iona was to Rick Pitino what McNeese State will be to Will Wade and Mississippi will be to Chris Beard: a waystation for rinsing a tarnished reputation. Once he won enough games and got a pass from the IARP hearing panel last November that ruled on the Louisville NCAA infractions case, it was time to go. Again.
Pitino used Iona. Was it mutually beneficial? Sure, he took the Gaels to two NCAA tournaments in three seasons. But keep in mind Iona had been to four tournaments in the five years before Pitino arrived. He took over the best program in the MAAC.
The problem for even the big dogs of the MAAC is it’s a one-bid league. The capricious nature of a successful season riding on three conference tournament games will drive most coaches to multi-bid conferences—if they’re good enough to get there. Pitino is plenty good enough, and now there he goes.
Getting St. John’s to take on Pitino’s baggage required two things: the near-certainty of him reviving a dormant program and the Get Out of Jail Free card from an IARP that will soon shut down after universally terrible reviews. While his list of scandals long precedes the FBI investigation of corruption in college basketball that led to his ouster, Pitino has turned that case into a towering injustice he had to endure.
“I was totally exonerated because I was innocent of any—I got two Level II violations of not being able to monitor,” Pitino said after Iona was eliminated by Connecticut last week. “I got letters from every player I've coached, every assistant coach that's ever coached to send to them to say what a disciplinarian I am.
"So I had to wait five years for them to basically stall my career out to finally get exonerated. It was exonerated by an impartial committee made up of legal people—legal people, not ADs and not people they hand pick. So for five years they put me in the outhouse because they couldn't get their stuff together.”
That is some classic Pitino spin.
In point of fact, the NCAA member schools have stressed repeatedly, for years, that head coaches be held accountable for the actions of their coaching staffs. If what went on at his past programs were being charged today by NCAA Enforcement, he’d be facing major penalties and would be unhireable at St. John’s.
To recap: a Pitino staffer arranged sex acts for players and recruits in the basketball dorm, which led to the school self-imposing a postseason ban, the 2013 national championship being vacated and Pitino being suspended by the NCAA for five games. He later had two other staffers who were found to have committed Level I violations in the FBI-related case, even though he escaped sanctions himself.
Whether he knew what his assistants were doing would be immaterial in 2023. And if he didn’t know, let’s just say Pitino made a series of rather poor hiring decisions. In most businesses, the boss has to answer for the actions of his staff.
As for his career being stalled out, and for how long: Pitino was fired in 2017, never served the five-game suspension and those sanctions were not applied after he reappeared at Iona in 2020 (two-and-a-half years later, not five). While he might consider Iona a career stall, he needed the job to commence the rinsing process.
That’s now complete, or at least complete enough for St. John’s to hire him. In a world where Alabama has redefined what a school is willing to tolerate in pursuit of winning, hiring Pitino isn’t that big a deal. He will succeed, and the sport will be more entertaining with him in a high-profile position.
He’ll say it’s his last job, of course. He might even mean it this time. But if a better program wants to call a 72-year-old in a couple of years, he’ll answer.