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Pitino certain to turn Iona into one of the nation’s most interesting teams

(Photo by Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

Rick Pitino has enough money to sustain five future generations of his family. And he could have just admitted his time as a college basketball coach had come and gone. Seriously, what more does he need to prove after all the success he has enjoyed over to many years?

Thing is, there are some coaches who can’t get the bounce out of the brain. It’s a way of life for them, perhaps even a way to stay alive in the most literal sense.

Two years ago, Jim Calhoun, the Hall of Famer who led UConn to three national championships, returned to coaching at age 75 at a tiny Division III school in Hartford, Conn., St. Joseph, which was fielding a men’s program for the first time. Why? He needed to.

So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when Pitino, 67, who had journeyed to Greece just to keep coaching, returned to the collegiate sidelines to lead Iona, a Catholic institution that plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

“People have reached out to me. I told them I had no interest. There was so many things outside of the lines that were important than between the lines. I’m so passionate about the game that I went halfway around the world to coach in Greece. I missed my family, no one was there. If I was going to coach in college basketball, it was going to fulfill my needs away from the lines,” Pitino told ESPN over the weekend.

“Iona brings me back. Something that Dick Vitale said to me last week, he said, “Jim Valvano said the best years of his life were coaching at Iona. I knew it was the right fit, it’s 30 minutes from my apartment in New York City, it’s 10 minutes from my son in Harrison, New York. It’s 10 minutes from a golf club I’ve belonged to, Winged Foot. It has a great tradition.”

Pitino takes over for Tim Cluess who stepped down due to health reasons after 10 seasons with the Gaels. Iona was very successful on his watch. It won either the regular-season or conference tournament championship every season from 2012 to 2019.

Of course, Pitino hasn’t coached college since Louisville fired him in October 2017 following an NCAA investigation. There was an accusation that someone on Louisville’s staff paid Adidas $100,000 to the family of Brian Bowen, at that time a program recruit.

“We did a really thorough interview process. We talked to Rick on numerous occasions,” Iona athletic director Matt Glovaski told ESPN. “At Iona, we have a zero tolerance policy of anything illegal. We were very clear on expectations for how we do things moving forward. I think we’re in the best possible position moving forward. It’s a terrific opportunity for the school.”

You can imagine what having Pitino around will eventually do for the Iona program. He will be able to recruit nationally and if he sticks around there’s no reason to believe his program won’t be consequential within three seasons.

Rick Pitino

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

After all, Pitino won national championships at Kentucky (1996) and Louisville (2013) and has been to seven Final Fours, beginning at Providence in 1987. He’s the only coach to win an NCAA Division I men’s basketball title in two places. He’s also a former NBA coach with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics and he’s been coaching in Greece since December 2018 with Panathinaikos.

Glovaski said as soon as Cluess told him he was leaving, he knew Pitino was interested through other parties.

There was mutual interest. I was certainly really excited about the idea. I never had a chance to meet him before. He’s a Hall of Fame coach,” Glovaski said. “And I’ve had the opportunity to work with [Seton Hall coach] Kevin Willard, who always spoke so highly of Pitino. With the legacy and tradition of Iona basketball, the potential would be there. We’re in an amazing area of New York, with terrific basketball established throughout our history. We thought there would be an opportunity.”

Pitino said the Iona roster would need some revamping after a disappointing 2019-20 season. It suffered its first losing season since 2009.

“It needs to be boosted up quite a bit. It probably needs six recruits. The first year, probably quite a few fifth-year transfers. I’m not a big junior college recruiter, not into the juco ranks. We do need a lot of immediate help,” Pitino said.

“I learned an awful lot going to the EuroLeague. It’s a different form of basketball. It’s the best offensive basketball played, [including] college and the NBA. The best offensive sets, the best ball movement, the best cuts backdoor, the best passing, the best shooting. They don’t have the defenses we have because the athleticism isn’t as powerful, but from a learning standpoint, I learned quite a bit. The coaching was fantastic. I’ve coached against Dean Smith, Frank McGuire – I put these guys on the same stage as all the great ones. I learned a great deal. Offensively, it’s made me a better basketball coach.”

Pitino stressed he wasn’t taking the Iona job with intention to use it as a stepping stone to get back into a Power 5 conference.

I’ve coached Kentucky, Louisville, the Celtics, the Knicks. It wasn’t about being at the mountaintop again. I’m looking to climb the mountain and bring Iona to something special. Tim Cluess did a fabulous job, I want to carry on and do something special. I’m not looking to move on,” Pitino said.

“It’s the perfect way for me to end a long coaching career. It’s just the perfect ending for me. I couldn’t think of a more perfect ending. It matches the values I have away from the court. I’m super excited about it. If I could pick any school in the nation, proximity would be the No. 1 thing I look at. No. 2 would be values of the college. The way they speak about the place, it just made it a perfect fit. I’m so, so excited.”

We’re excited for Pitino, happy he’s getting his chance to get back into the game. Remember, this is someone who has Billy Donovan, Jeff Van Gundy, Tubby Smith, Kevin Willard, Frank Vogel, Brett Brown and Mick Cronin hanging from his coaching tree. He’s one of the greats – ever.

And Iona has a proud history. It’s a program that has sent Williard, Jim Valvano and Pat Kennedy into higher-profile jobs.

There is the potential for this marriage to make great things happen, perhaps turning the program into Gonzaga of the East coast.

Iona is going to be one of the most interesting stories of the 2020-21 season.