Is Rick Pitino the Coach the Iona Gaels Basketball Team Needs?

Rick Pitino is the first coach ever to lead three different schools to the Final Four of the NCAA March Madness tournament.
Photo by Jeff Reinking/Louisville Athletics, courtesy of Iona Athletics

Time will tell if hiring scandalized Hall of Famer Rick Pitino as head coach of Iona College’s men’s basketball program was the right move.

Good leaders dare to think outside the box. They weigh risk versus reward and take their shots. They may think so big, some question whether they’ve lost touch with reality.

Before becoming president of Iona College in 2019, Dr. Seamus Carey remembers telling a friend that if he ever wound up at a D1 school, he might want to hire Rick Pitino. When that opportunity came, he called alumnus Robert LaPenta, one of the college’s greatest benefactors, to explore the possibility of having Pitino succeed the ailing Tim Cluess.

“I actually didn’t think it was that crazy,” Carey says. “But, obviously, having a Hall of Fame coach, arguably the best coach in the history of college basketball, come to a small, Catholic, mid-major program is a little bit ambitious.”

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LaPenta initially developed a relationship with Pitino based on their mutual interest in horse racing, which ultimately resulted in a friendship. He contacted Pitino in Greece, where the coach had essentially been exiled after a scandalous end to a bittersweet 16-year stint at the University of Louisville.

Pitino is so devoted to his sport that he had agreed to coach Panathinaikos, a team in the Greek Basketball League, and the Greek national team (which he still coaches). The longer LaPenta spoke to him, the more obvious it became that Dr. Carey’s seemingly wild idea might turn into a brilliant, if controversial, move.

As improbable dance partners as Iona and Pitino might have been, they were there for each other at a time of need. Pitino, a New York City native, yearned to come home. “It was the perfect storm, and it worked out exceedingly well,” LaPenta says. “I think it’s the beginning of a great story for Iona.”

Time will tell. Some members of the national media greeted the announcement of Pitino’s hiring on March 14 of last year with a fair amount of snickering. “Rick Pitino coaching at Iona is like Pavarotti singing at a county fair in Iowa. He is dramatically overqualified,” Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde quipped.

Pitino, 68, long ago ensured himself of a preeminent place among basketball coaches. He brought his magic touch to four previous college posts: Boston University (1978–83), Providence College (1985–87), University of Kentucky (1989–97), and Louisville (2001–17). He also worked in the NBA, as head coach of the New York Knicks (1987–89) and Boston Celtics (1997–2001).

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Even at a young age, Pitino’s dynamic leadership allowed Boston University to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 24 years. He has had 21 teams earn NCAA berths and participate in March Madness.

With his success at Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville, he became the first coach ever to lead three different schools to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. He has made seven Final Four appearances and won it all with Kentucky in 1996. Thirty-one of his players were drafted by the NBA or competed in the league.

Pitino at Iona? Yes, in the twilight of his career, he does seem as out of place as Pavarotti would among corn dogs and cows. And yet, he views this as the ideal final stop and even purchased a home not far from the campus as a sign of his commitment.

“I thank [President Carey] once or twice a week for giving me this opportunity to coach at Iona,” Pitino says. “I think it’s a special little campus, a special little place, and I feel we’re going to make it big-time.”

Of course, the word “little” jumps out. Founded by the Congregation of Christian Brothers in 1940 as a private Catholic college, Iona lists its enrollment as 3,590 students. Hynes Athletics Center, its on-campus gymnasium, seats 2,578 fans. (Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center, by contrast, seats 22,090.)

If Iona is indeed to make it “big-time,” it must be able to consistently slay giants. That is something the school has never been able to do. Its lone victory in 14 attempts in the NCAA Tournament — an 84-78 decision against Holy Cross in 1980 — was vacated by the NCAA due to a rules violation.

The Gaels made four consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament under Cluess, from 2016 to 2019, each a painful reminder of how difficult it is for a mid-major school to compete against heavyweights. The Gaels were pounded by Iowa State (94-81), Oregon (93-77), Duke (89-67), and North Carolina (88-73).

At press time, the Iona Gaels were 5-3 and in second place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Photo by Carlisle Stockton, courtesy of Iona Athletics

Iona and other mid-major programs are typically used by talented and ambitious young coaches as steppingstones to schools that offer massive home arenas, prime-time television exposure, and private planes for recruiting trips.

The rare charisma of the late Jim Valvano brought the Gaels to national prominence from 1975 to 1980, only to have him jump to North Carolina State, where he delivered a national championship. Successor Pat Kennedy spent six years in New Rochelle before bolting to Florida State. Former Pitino assistant Kevin Willard used somewhat painful lessons learned at Iona from 2007 to 2010 to lift Seton Hall to its current Big East prominence.

Yet, Willard is among those who applaud the unlikely pairing of Pitino and Iona.

“When I first saw him on the sideline, I said, ‘That’s where Rick Pitino belongs,’” Willard recalls. “I think he landed at a phenomenal spot. It’s a tremendous college. I think of the two of them combined. I’m not going to be looking forward to playing them in three or four years, I’ll tell you that much.”

Although Iona has dominated the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference since its inception 40 years ago, by winning 10 regular-season and 12 post-season tournament titles, the step to greater prominence is treacherous.

“With someone like Rick Pitino leading the way, anything is possible. But, obviously, the financial investment in the program is key,” says Steve Masiello, who coaches men’s basketball at local rival Manhattan College. “What are they willing to do to take it to the next level? That will determine if it can become a different level of success.”

Masiello worked as a NY Knicks ball boy when Pitino pumped new life into that team. Pitino became a role model for him; the two not only developed a strong relationship, Masiello calls Pitino “one of the best basketball minds of all time.”

Pitino’s genius extends far beyond game plans and designing plays, however.

“What he is unbelievable at is the ability to create a vision and hold people accountable to that vision. I’ve never seen anyone do it to the level he can,” says Masiello, who played for his longtime mentor at Kentucky and later joined his coaching staff. “He creates visions with great detail, and he lets you know what the steps are to get there, and then he holds you to those steps. That is a real gift, and there is just no one better at it.”

Iona struggled to a 12-17 record last season, while Cluess, who had overseen 20-win seasons in each of his first eight years, was treated for an undisclosed medical condition prior to his resignation.

Pitino’s arrival continues to generate enthusiasm. “I’m so excited to be playing for a coach like him,” says senior guard Asante Gist. “I know he can take me a long way with my career and life, as well.”

The players who are now his charge quickly learned of Pitino’s demanding nature. He conducted a series of grueling practices after they committed 22 turnovers in a season-opening 86-64 loss to Seton Hall. Senior guard Isaiah Ross scored a game-high 23 points, but Pitino told reporters that Ross had played poorly because he did not register an assist. It was a comment that clearly expresses Pitino’s formula for success throughout the decades: ball movement, teamwork, limiting mistakes, and smothering defensive pressure.

Although the pandemic meant recruits had to be contacted through Zoom calls, Pitino already has done a remarkable job landing promising new talent. His first recruiting class was highlighted by 7-foot Osborn Shema, from Kanombe, Rwanda, and 6’9” Nelly Junior Joseph, from Benin City, Nigeria. Shema is a sophomore, and Joseph is a freshman.

For his second recruiting class, he added two well-regarded guards, Walter Clayton Jr. and Joshua Duach, as well as two more big men — 6’9” Jordan Wildey and 6’10” Trey James.

When Pitino weighed coming to Iona, he ultimately adhered to advice he used to give assistant coaches when they evaluated opportunities. “I always told people: ‘If you think you can recruit with the best teams in the conference, then it is a damn good job.’ I think Iona is a very good job because you can recruit at a very high level, just as high as a Louisville, believe it or not,” Pitino says.

With someone like Rick Pitino leading the way, anything is possible.
— Steve Masiello head coach, men’s basketball Manhattan College

Louisville had been a dream job for Pitino — until it turned nightmarish.

An FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball uncovered, among other things, that one of Pitino’s assistants arranged for a $100,000 payment to the father of top recruit Brian Bowen if Bowen agreed to attend Louisville. The money was provided by Adidas, which sponsored Louisville athletics.

As if that weren’t disturbing enough, it came to light that former director of basketball operations Andre McGee arranged to have strippers and prostitutes attend sex parties for players and recruits.

Although Pitino was never directly linked to either scandal, the fallout was severe. In an unprecedented disciplinary measure, the NCAA forced Louisville to vacate its 2013 national championship. Pitino endured the ignominy of being locked out of his office and being escorted off campus by security before the 201718 season.

Pitino finally admitted to some culpability shortly after Iona hired him. “Looking back on it now, I deserved to be fired by Louisville,” he said during a WFAN interview. “Was I innocent of any wrongdoing? Yes, I was. But I was the leader, and I deserved to be fired.”

Why, then, was Iona, which urges students to use Christian values and their education to “move the world,” willing to hire him when other schools were not?

“I know that he has taken responsibility for some of the lack of oversight at Louisville, but we’re a very different institution than Louisville,” Carey says. “We are a small college. Not much happens here that I don’t know about. Quite honestly, I’m not worried about anything going wrong in that regard.

“I focus on what I consider to be the core of our Catholic mission and the Christian Brothers: humility, respect and forgiveness,” adds Carey, who insists Iona is not sending a poor message to its students and alumni by looking past Pitino’s tenure at Louisville. “Those are the principles Iona tries to live by and the message we try to convey. So, if anybody is getting bad messages, I would argue it isn’t from us.”

Stacey Franciamore, an Iona senior who is also editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, The Ionian, says the vast majority of students applaud the hire. “The main priority is ‘Yay, basketball! We’re going to win!’ Not too many people are thinking about the values,” she says.

Matthew Chaves, also a senior and sports editor at The Ionian, agreed with Franciamore. “Values are important, but the students value these sports, especially men’s basketball. They value it a lot, especially bringing in victories, bringing in trophies. It gets the school on the map.”

Carey also expects Pitino to have a big impact Iona, in terms perception, visibility, and fundraising efforts.

“I am first and foremost an academic in the business of educating students. So, the main motivation was to elevate the recognition of Iona College, not just Iona basketball,” says Carey, confident that a move that once seemed “a little bit ambitious” will turn into a win-win scenario.

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