Rick Pitino is so content as head coach of the Iona Gaels and so loyal to its leadership that he would not leave for another college coaching job — even if it were Kentucky, which he refers to as the best job in all of college basketball.
Pitino, 68, said Sunday on “Cameron Mills Radio” that he is committed to Iona because of the university’s commitment to him. He was hired last spring after two years coaching the top Greece club Panathinaikos and coached the Gaels to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title and an NCAA Tournament bid in his first season, despite multiple COVID pauses that kept the team off the court for 55 days in 2020-21.
The Kentucky job is not open. John Calipari has taken the Wildcats to four Final Fours and an NCAA title since arriving in 2009. Pitino spoke hypothetically to underscore his desire to remain at Iona.
“If Coach Cal went to the pros today and they respectfully called me, I would say, ‘That’s the greatest honor in the world, but I’m very happy. I’m staying at Iona,” Pitino told Mills.
“And there are a lot of reasons for that, and it’s not my age, because I’m still as passionate today as any day.”
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Although Kentucky is not open, there are jobs available at such programs as Indiana, DePaul and Marquette.
Pitino said Iona made a powerful impression on him when the president and athletic director flew to Spain to speak with him about their head coaching position, which opened because of health issues for the previous coach, Tim Cluess, who took Iona to six NCAA Tournaments in nine seasons.
“When the chips were down for me … when the stuff went the other way for me at Louisville, and they fired me, I went to Greece because I loved the game,” Pitino said. “And outside of two mid-majors, nobody came after me.”
Pitino said when he met with the Iona representatives and attempted to tell them what had gone wrong at Louisville, they interrupted him and said their research indicated that he had done nothing wrong in the circumstance that led to the Cardinals basketball program being mentioned — albeit not identified by name — in a Justice Department charging document and cited in court testimony by the father of former U of L recruit Brian Bowen.
“I said, ‘Look, you can speak for any of my players who played for me at Kentucky, Louisville, Providence — I have never cheated. I never gave anything to anyone. I’m a man that believes in doing it the right way,” Pitino told Mills. “And all of a sudden he interrupted me, and said, ‘Coach, I don’t want to hear a word about Louisville. We wouldn’t have jumped on a plane … if we thought there was anything you did wrong.
“I said, ‘No, I did a lot wrong. I trusted certain people. And I didn’t lead the right way, apparently.’ And they said, ‘Don’t say another word.’”
Pitino said he wasn’t planning to accept the Iona position, but the approach of president Seamus Carey convinced him.
“That man now has my loyalty for life,” Pitino said. “I’m here for as long as God will bless me with the ability to coach.”