Year 1 to Year 2: A chat with Minnesota coach Richard Pitino
In this short series, SI.com has spoken with several coaches entering Year 2 at their current jobs about what they learned in the first year and what they're looking for next season. Up first: Minnesota's Richard Pitino.
Richard Pitino spent one year at Florida International as Isaiah Thomas' replacement, winning 18 games with a depleted roster, before being the surprise pick to succeed the fired Tubby Smith at Minnesota in 2013-14. Success followed again: The Gophers were an 8-10 team in Big Ten play but finished with 25 wins overall and the NIT championship. The 31-year-old Pitino now gets his first Year 2 as a head coach and talked about the surprises the Minnesota job presented and the mental tweaks necessary to move the program to the next level.
SI: On a state barnstorming tour recently, you said you were looking forward to having a Year 2. What did you learn in Year 1 that you can now apply moving forward?
RP: I actually did two first years in a row, and it's very, very difficult for a variety of reasons. Not only are you trying to get acclimated with yourself and your family and get comfortable with where you're at, but you've also got to get to know your players, you're constantly meeting new people who you've never met before – whether it's in your athletic department, in the community, boosters, high school coaches, AAU coaches – as well as you've got to recruit, you've got to establish the way that you want to play. You establish your culture, it doesn't necessarily mean the old culture was bad or wrong, it's just going to be different. There are so many little things that go into it, it's nice now, with a lot of key guys coming back, that we don't have to worry about that as much. Certainly we've got to continue to grow, but now they're going to understand the majority of it, and they can teach the incoming guys a little bit better than what may have been done in the past.
SI: What did you learn about Minnesota – the place, the job – that you apply to Year 2?
RP: They always say Minnesota, when they're hiring in the business world, is one of the toughest places to get people to come to. But it becomes one of the toughest places to get people to leave. That's kind of what I'm learning. Not that it was tough to come here, but after spending a year here, I understand now why people don't want to leave, why we have so many players who are not even from here stay here. They treat people right. They treat student-athletes the right way after they're done, if they act appropriately throughout college. There are so many great opportunities outside of basketball when you get your degree from Minnesota. I probably didn't know that when I moved here. Certainly we've got great fan support, we're the only Division I basketball program in the entire state, so we've got kind of a united front. That's fun to be a part of.
SI: That dynamic, being the only Division I program in the state – was there any part of that you learned some things about, some passion you didn't expect?
RP: When you talk about all the great things we have here, and all the great things we have to sell, our fan base is at the top of the list. When The Barn is alive, it's as tough of a place to play as there is in the country. Our fan base has such pride in that. We sell that a lot. Anytime that you can rely on having the majority of your Big Ten games sold out, you've got 14,000 people in the building, you can build something there. We don't have to build a fan base. Now we just need to catch up with everything else.
SI: Did that surprise you in any way? How much Minnesota people care about Minnesota basketball?
RP: It did. It's as good of a fan base as you're going to find, and I didn't know that at the time. And they're starving to be great. That's what I've really seen. They're so loyal, but they are so excited about the future. And I think they've rallied around us, they've been so welcoming to me. We've got one of the best fan bases in all of college basketball and I wouldn't have known it until I came here. Now, it's my job to let people know.
SI: What did you put in place in Year 1 that needs to be amplified or tweaked in Year 2?
RP: We were a good team this year, certainly. You win 25 games and win the NIT, that's a lot to be proud of. But there are a lot of things we need to improve on. We were not the defensive team I would have liked to have been. I thought we were a very good offensive team execution-wise. Turnovers need to be cut down. The thing that I liked more than anything was, we were playing our best basketball at the end of the year. Especially if you watched us against Florida State and against SMU, we played very well. It wasn't like we just fell into an NIT championship. We'll be able to build off that momentum. But certainly, we've just got to kind of perfect what we're trying to do.
SI: What's on the checklist to accomplish over the summer months?
RP: You look at the majority of the guys that we have that are coming back – we had a game against Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament we needed to win to make the NCAA tournament. We needed to win it. We knew that. And that would have solidified our chances. And we laid an egg. So now there's a reason for that, and I think it has lot to do with – we've just got to get mentally tougher. Good teams can win at home, but the great teams win on the road. I think we won 20 games at home, but we didn't win a whole lot on the road. And in order to do that you've got to get mentally tougher. That's kind of been the main focus this year. It's easier in Year 2 in the offseason to really focus on those things more so than Xs and Os, because that's kind of been put in place.
SI: So how do you work on that mental toughness over the summer?
RP: We've been brainstorming a lot, on different things to do. I've said this before – they heard my voice so much last year that I think it may be good for them to hear some other voices this year. We're brainstorming through that right now. They're going to spend a lot of time certainly in the weight room with my strength coach, I'm going to give my assistant coaches a lot of opportunity and freedom to let their voices be heard, and then we may just go outside the box a little bit and bring some speakers in and do some different things. Just to keep it fresh and their minds constantly trying to get better.
SI: Anything in terms of infrastructure and resources after Year 1 where you say, We could use more of this, or We've got enough of this?
RP: I'll say this: I've been with Norwood (Teague) for a year. I truly believe he's one of the best athletic directors in the country, probably that nobody knows about just yet. But he's going through a big building process just like I am, and I love working with him every single day. I've got full faith in him when it comes to that. The biggest thing besides recruiting and getting our student-athletes to do the right thing on the court, off the court and in the classroom – I've got to get people outside of the Twin Cities to understand how great we have it. And understand we can provide an unbelievable academic opportunity as well as an unbelievable basketball opportunity. I don't know if that perception is there just yet. That's kind of the biggest thing I'm going to try to build moving forward.
SI: After being there for a year, what's your take on the facilities you have?
RP: It's probably hard for people to understand who aren't here, but we've done a lot of things to make sure our players' lives are easier. We now can practice, go to study hall, do tutors and lift all in the same building. Which is really, really helpful. They need to be able to go to class, go to study hall, meet with their tutors – that's got to all be accessible. We fixed that, which I was really excited about. When we do get a practice facility, it's going to be great. But that doesn't mean all of a sudden now everything is going to be perfect. We still have to build. The team that just cut down the nets (Connecticut) didn't have a practice facility. We're not going to use that as an excuse.
SI: What do you think was the most instructive moment or game for your team?
RP: I thought probably when we played Syracuse in Maui, we certainly played well, we didn't win the game, but I thought it showed we were going to compete with anybody and hopefully it showed we won't be outworked or out-toughed or out-hustled. That gave our guys confidence. They were able to come back against Florida State and get a good win versus a very good team. That showed these guys, we could be a pretty good team.
SI: How would you hope everything else looks a year from now, when you're finished with Year 2? RP: Obviously we don't operate like that – that's just too hard, you just don't know what's going to happen, knock on wood, with injuries and things like that. You just take it day by day. and I do believe we have something special here. I do believe it needs to be built. I don't think it can happen overnight. We have such great fan support and such a great university, it just becomes letting everybody know about it, making sure our student athletes have a great experience when they're here, and just building it. And that just takes time.