P.J. Fleck has a struggling football team on his hands but the Gophers coach is only his second year and, thus, time is not a concern for him. The same is true for men’s hockey Bob Motkzo and women’s basketball coach Lindsay Whalen, who are just getting started and can afford some tough defeats or bumpy seasons.
The same, however, does not hold true for men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino. That is why Pitino, entering his sixth season as coach at the University of Minnesota, tops a BetDSI list of college basketball coaches who are favored to be fired first this season. Pitino is listed at +250, just ahead of Maryland’s Mark Turgeon at +300.
This isn’t the first time Pitino has felt pressure since former athletic director Norwood Teague hired him in 2013. Two years ago, the Gophers had a brutal season on the court, going 8-23 overall and 2-16 in the Big Ten, and enough off-the-court issues that University president Eric Kaler addressed the concerns when he introduced Mark Coyle as Minnesota’s new athletic director in May 2016.
But any feeling that Coyle might quickly fire Pitino disappeared when the Gophers proved to be one of the biggest surprises in college hoops in 2016-17. They finished 24-10 overall and 11-7 in the conference to earn their first NCAA berth since Pitino arrived. The off-the-court issues also seemed to be cleaned up, and Pitino’s contract was extended by a season to run through 2021-22.
This set up big expectations for 2016-17 and a feeling that the Pitino roller-coaster was finally finished. Only that was far from the case. The Gophers started the season at 13-3, but ended 15-17 overall and 4-14 in the Big Ten as just about everything went wrong.
It started when Eric Curry tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee during a summer pickup game. Amir Coffey had shoulder issues, Dupree McBrayer battled leg problems and Nate Mason had hip and ankle injuries. Then there was the suspension of center Reggie Lynch in January following a school investigation into an alleged sexual assault of a woman in his dorm room in April 2016.
The contract extension given to Pitino and the support he has received from Coyle meant there was little talk of his job security after last season. But Pitino finds himself again trying to get the Gophers back up the hill and hoping to find a level of consistency that has been elusive during his time on campus.
Minnesota opened its season on Tuesday with a 104-76 victory over Nebraska-Omaha before an announced crowd of 8,883 at Williams Arena. Coffey, now playing point guard, had 18 points; McBrayer 17; and Jordan Murphy added 12 points and 10 rebounds. Freshmen Daniel Oturu, who attended high school at Cretin-Derham Hall, and Gabe Kalscheur, who went to DeLaSalle, both started. Oturu finished with 14 points and eight rebounds and Kalscheur eight points.
It’s going to take a lot more convincing than one easy non-conference victory for the Gophers’ fan base to buy back in. Curry already is out again for four to six weeks after requiring further surgery on his knee.
The Gophers have six games remaining in November and only Monday’s against Utah will be played at Williams Arena. The Nov. 30 game against Oklahoma State will be at U.S. Bank Stadium, so it also will serve as a home game, but that’s still different from a year ago when the Gophers played five of their eight November games at the Barn.
Even then, Minnesota learned a hot start provides no assurance of success — the Gophers were 7-0 and ranked 12th when they lost by five points to No. 10 Miami at Williams Arena last November in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge — but it could help take some of the pressure off Pitino and his program.
Otherwise, we might begin to find out just how patient Coyle is willing to be with one of his most important programs.