Rick Pitino is one of college basketball’s most prolific coaches. He’s a two-time NCAA champion with both Kentucky in 1996 and Louisville in 2013. But his reputation was damaged after his Kentucky title was vacated due to recruiting violations. A scandal at Louisville led to an FBI investigation and Pitino’s firing.
He ended up in college basketball Siberia as the coach of New York’s Iona College, but this week, Pitino, 70, was announced as the new head coach for St. John’s University, once a college basketball powerhouse.
“I deserve it,” Pitino said, at his introductory press conference, “because I’ve earned it.”
While he took Iona to the tournament two out of three years he was there, the lure of returning St. John’s to the days of glory it experienced with legendary coach Lou Carnesecca in the ’80s played a role in his decision.
Pitino did say that some players currently on the St. John’s roster will not make the cut and that he’s looking for specific qualities in his players for the future.
“He’s got to be total, over-the-top in love with the game of basketball,” he said. “And if you’re not, it’s just a bad fit with me. It doesn’t work. So there will be a lot of players who, I hope, will move on to greener pastures.”
Pitino’s doing some recruiting off the court too, as he got wind that St. John’s alum J. Cole was on campus this week and invited him to stop by the gym to get up a few shots or offer up some bars for the Red Storm’s theme song.
Pitino was ultimately cleared in the Louisville investigation which centered on recruits being provided sex by escorts. But other scandals plagued his tenure there including a woman trying to extort him after a consensual sexual encounter.
“Yeah, sure, there’s some reputational risk because of things that have happened before, but I think Rick is at a point in his life where he’s learned from things that have happened in the past,” St. John’s president, Rev. Brian Shanley, told the Associated Press. “I think he’d be the first one to tell you he’s done things that he regrets. Who doesn’t when you get to be that age? I know I have. I’m a believer in forgiveness and new beginnings as a priest, and I think Rick’s going to do a great job for St. John’s.”
In his career, Pitino amassed an 834-293 record as a college coach, going to seven Final Fours with three schools and coaching both the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks. He had less success in the NBA, but in college basketball, he’s only had one losing season.
Pitino is signing a six-year contract with St. John’s.
Carnesecca, who is still alive and kicking at 98, sat in the front row of the press conference. He said he applauded the move to hire Pitino.
“I think it’s a home run with the bases loaded,” Carnesecca said.
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