Iona College finally lost in the MAAC Tournament, but that didn’t stop the Gaels from making major March noise. Though the season ended for them Wednesday, a day before everyone else’s season came to a close due to the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the country, the New Rochelle school dropped a bombshell Saturday that …
Iona College finally lost in the MAAC Tournament, but that didn’t stop the Gaels from making major March noise.
Though the season ended for them Wednesday, a day before everyone else’s season came to a close due to the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the country, the New Rochelle school dropped a bombshell Saturday that reverberated throughout the sport.
Iona announced the hiring of Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino — following Tim Cluess stepping down Friday due to health problems — in stunning news for the MAAC and college basketball in general.
“Rick has demonstrated that he cares deeply about helping student-athletes achieve great success on and off the court,” Iona president Seamus Carey said in a statement. “After a thorough interview process we are confident that Rick’s experience and commitment to Iona and our community make him the right person to continue to build on Tim Cluess’ success. We welcome Rick and his family to New Rochelle and look forward to accomplishing big things together.”
After two years coaching Panathinaikos B.C. in Greece following his dismissal in 2017 from Louisville as part of a massive college basketball bribery scheme, in which he has denied involvement, the 67-year-old is coming back to the States, agreeing to a five-year contract. Pitino, who has led four teams to the NCAA Tournament, taken three (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) to a Final Four and owns a 770-271 all-time record, said he had heard from other schools, but Iona was his focus. Talks grew serious this week and wrapped up early afternoon on Saturday.
“I took the job wanting it to be my last job,” Pitino told The Post in a phone interview. “I spoke to numerous people about it, and I’m glad I’m ending [my career] with a small Catholic school that has the potential to be built up into a major power, regardless of what people think. I’m super excited about it. It’s a perfect fit at a perfect time in my life.”
Pitino said he plans to finish his season overseas in Greece when — or if — it begins again and was set to coach Greece’s National Team as well in Olympic qualifying. For now, Euroleague and Greek Basket League has been postponed due to the coronavirus.
Pitino said other than Iona, two schools in particular interested him. He had his eye on Providence, when Ed Cooley nearly left last spring for Michigan, and Holy Cross, because of his connections to higher-ups at the school.
Iona gives him a chance to return to his roots. Pitino, 67, still owns an apartment in Manhattan, has a lot of family and friends in the area and liked the idea of coming back to New York City, where he grew up and coached the hometown Knicks.
There were several connections that led to this move. Top Iona booster Robert LaPenta formerly partnered with Pitino in ownership of racehorses and Carey and Pitino have a relationship dating to his days as Louisville’s coach. Carey is very close with Rick Avare, Pitino’s business partner, and Jamal Mashburn, the former Kentucky star Pitino once coached.
“If Seamus wasn’t at Iona, I don’t that it would’ve ever happened,” Pitino said.
Pitino’s accomplishments at the collegiate level are well-known — a .739 winning percentage over 30 seasons with Boston University, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville, with a national title in 1996 at Kentucky and a vacated title in 2013 at Louisville.
As Louisville’s coach across 16 seasons, Pitino was part of multiple scandals. An escort sex scandal involving players and recruits forced Louisville to vacate the 2013 national championship. Pitino then was investigated and eventually fired for his role in a pay-for-play scheme involving a recruit. The NCAA still hasn’t ruled on the latest Louisville scandal that led to his dismissal, so it’s uncertain if Pitino will face any further discipline upon returning to the sport.
However, he met with the NCAA before leaving to coach in Greece and doesn’t expect to face more punishment.
“I feel very comfortable [with my situation]. I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “I feel we’re all clear of that. … I have a lot of confidence in the judgement of the NCAA.”
Pitino said his biggest coaching regret was leaving Providence to coach the Knicks after leading the Friars to the 1987 Final Four. Those two years were, in his words, “magical.” He sees a lot of the same characteristics at Iona that made his time at Providence so memorable.
“It was a small Catholic school with a small gym I loved so much,” he said. “I’m going back to a similar situation. I know I’ll love it equally the same.
“I still have so much passion for the game, and going back home make it extra special.”