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Updated: April 5th, 2013 2:38pm
Sandell: New coach Richard Pitino brings fresh outlook Gophers wanted

Sandell: New coach Richard Pitino brings fresh outlook Gophers wanted

by Nate Sandell

MINNEAPOLIS -- Richard Pitino was ready, donned in a well-tailored suit, hair slicked back in similar fashion as his father, equipped with a smile that seemed to be genuine.

Amid the staged fanfare of a press conference-turn-pep rally, the newest face of the Minnesota Gophers men's basketball team maintained the sheen and poise that spoke to his well-groomed college basketball pedigree, despite his youthfulness.

Eleven days after Tubby Smith was fired in the wake of an uninspiring six-year tenure, Pitino sat behind a microphone Friday morning on the court at Williams Arena in the spotlight of the program he had just inherited at age 30.

As is the case with the addition of any new head coach, there was the obvious anticipation Pitino's initial address to the public would essentially be a sales pitch. In essence, that was what it was.

Pitino wasn't void of the expected clichés and glowing remarks of the program's stature. But his remarks were firm and carried a certain weight, without the unnecessary hyperbole of lofty future success, a la Tim Brewster's Rose Bowl proclamation.

"I think the sky is the limit for this place. I really do," Pitino said. "We've got to do a great job of recruiting. It always starts with that. You're playing in the best conference in college basketball and you're going to school at one of the best universities.

"We have a lot to sell. We have plenty to sell."

Pitino exuded a pointed sense of optimism and excitement. And that is what he brings to the Gophers -- an energized, youthful take on a program in need of a jolt out of its stagnate state.

At this infantile stage, it's difficult to filter through the excess and determine if Pitino is the guy who can meet the expectations of Big Ten and national success Smith never truly lived up to.

However, Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague set out to find someone with a fresh perspective about what could be possible with the program. Whether or not it was the right move, Pitino embodies the renewed viewpoint Teague was looking for.

Pitino had barely started to speak when it could be discerned that the similarities between him and his predecessor were few.

Armed with palpable confidence, Pitino answered questions directly, keeping to set guidelines he clearly spent time thinking through. He handled himself as if his head coaching background already held several chapters, not just one year in charge at Florida International.

It took Pitino less than minute before he brought up the style of play he intends to institute with the Gophers. This may seem trivial on the surface, but it was a nod to his grounding in the basics of what will determine his success in Minnesota and length of stay in the Twin Cities.

He preached about an up-tempo, press-heavy playing style that would be the "great brand of basketball" fans would have fun watching.

Smith repeatedly made those same claims of up-tempo play throughout his tenure, but the Gophers never resembled those initial promises when it came to the grind of the Big Ten.

"The one thing I think the style does is it tries to take you out of your comfort zone," Pitino said." "I think it's a bit of a misconception that the Big Ten is slow-down basketball. I watched Indiana play, that was truly fast-paced, as well as other programs.

"I'm more excited about trying to impose our will on other programs. That's what I worry about -- win the style of play. We try to be as aggressive as possible."

In another example of his anti-Tubby make-up, Pitino didn't fall back on the Gophers' lack of top-level infrastructure as an excuse or plea for patience.

While he acknowledged the absence of a practice facility and renovations to the 85-year-old Williams Arena were necessary, he was straightforward in insisting he intends to set about building his program without them.

"When I look around this place, we've got plenty to win at a high level," Pitino said. "The practice facility will come and when it does, it'll be great. But there's so much here we can use to our advantage and sell, you're going to get one of best degrees in country, best fan base, one of best arenas. We'll worry about what we do have now and worry about we don't have later."

It was the best statement Pitino could have made given his situation. Teague has the chops to get a practice facility on campus, but this program will go nowhere until the lack of resources stops being the fallback for not meeting expectations.

The hiring of Pitino was a gamble by Teague, his first major coaching hire in his nine months in charge at the "U". After a furious search filled with a dizzying amount of hearsay and speculation, Teague chose someone who had not been on the radar of many following the hiring process.

Although Teague made supposed attempts at landing higher-profile coaches (Shaka Smart, Fred Hoiberg, Flip Saunders, etc.), he eventually settled on a coach that fit the up-and-coming mold he used in his hires at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"We ran the search wanted to run," Teague said. "I said from the beginning we wanted to hustle but not be in a hurry. These things take time. It's a search. You meet with people. You go talk to people. You try to get the right fit.

"I know there were a lot of people that were mentioned in the media or on message boards. I made a lot of offers I didn't know I made to a lot of candidates I didn't know I met with. ...

"We got really lucky with this guy, impressed with his vision. He is the perfect fit for the University of Minnesota."

While Teague was adamant in stating Pitino was always on his "short list," it's hard to imagine the largely unproven first-year head coach was among the primary options. But in the end, it shouldn't matter if Pitino was on the list or not.

Teague did not make the flashy hire some naively envisioned was possible. The search process was a harsh reminder of where the Gophers stand as a program. They aren't in the upper echelon of major conference teams, and are not going to lure away a big-name coach from another established program.

Whomever Teague chose was going to be a risk. Pitino is just that, but he has the upbringing and the last name that can win over a fan base clamoring for sustained success.

He did not simply ride the coattails of his father, Rick Pitino, who was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on the eve Louisville's Final Four matchup with Wichita State.

The younger Pitino spent three years in low-level assistant jobs at the College of Charleston, Northeastern and Duquesne before splitting his time in the next four years with his father at Louisville (2007 to '09, 2011 to '12) and Billy Donovan at Florida (2009 to '11).

It was Teague's relationship with Donovan that played a crucial role in making Pitino surface as a candidate in the first place. While at VCU, Teague worked with Donovan to hire two head coaches, Anthony Grant and Smart, from Donovan's assistant staff.

Teague again went to Donovan and used his vote of confidence to fuel the decision to go after Pitino.

"He said there are two people that Rick Pitino, during his time as a head coach, has put unmerciful pressure and relentless pressure on while they were assistant coaches," Teague said. "One was Billy. Two was Richard. I think that shows how prepared he is to be a head coach -- because of that, because it prepared Billy the same way."

The test for Pitino now becomes how he handles being on the big stage brought on by a major media market and one of the nation's premier basketball conferences.

The challenges he faces are plentiful, starting with upgrading a recruiting pipeline that had gone dry under Smith. He will be expected to go after the Minnesota's "big three" 2014 recruits - Tyus Jones, Rashad Vaughn and Reid Travis. Landing even one of the trio could dramatically increase Pitino's approval rating.

"We're looking to get the right fit, not just looking to fill scholarships," Pitino said. "I don't think that's the right way to do things ... I will say this about recruiting, it's very important when you have a state university like Minnesota to constantly develop relationships within the state the right way."

Pitino met with his new team shortly before making his way to the stage. In their brief first encounter, Pitino, who is barely a decade older than most of his players, concisely laid out what he plans do in shaping the team's future.

Despite the range of emotions they had sifted through in the last two weeks, the players met Pitino's with excitement.

"He really gave us a positive vibe," soon-to-be senior guard Austin Hollins said. "He has a solid plan that he really wants to enforce. He knows what he wants to do. I think all the guys are going to be on board with that."

If there was one thing made clear in Pitino's introduction Friday, it was that he boasted the confidence and swagger needed to attempt a revitalization of a lackluster program.

After six years of an aging coach who seemed to rely more on his legacy than the real attributes of his university and team, Pitino on first glance gives the Gophers a taste of the opposite outlook.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to
Email Nate | @nsandell