Rick Pitino is officially returning to college basketball.
The Hall of Famer and former Louisville head coach has been named the new head coach of the Iona Gaels, a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
“I am delighted to welcome Rick Pitino to Gael Nation,” said Iona Director of Athletics Matthew Glovaski in a statement. “Rick is a Hall of Fame coach who has won at the highest levels and he is committed to leading our student-athletes and our program to national prominence. He brings passion and energy and shares our desire to build a winning program that will make our community proud.”
Pitino returned to the United States from Greece earlier this week, but has said that he will coach Panathinaikos B.C. for the remainder of the Euroleague season, if and when play in that league is resumed.
Pitino has been rumored as a candidate for multiple jobs this week, including Grand Canyon and Loyola Marymount. A source tells Card Chronicle that once Pitino was convinced he was going to be offered the Iona job, he said thanks but no thanks to the overtures from Grand Canyon, despite the fact that the for-profit university had the potential to offer him more money.
Iona, which is located in New Rochelle, N.Y., an area Pitino is very familiar with, has been through quite the week.
On Wednesday, the Gaels saw their streak of four consecutive MAAC tournament titles snapped with a two-point quarterfinal loss to Saint Peter’s. On Thursday, they saw that streak get pieced back together with the announcement that the rest of the tournament was being canceled. Later that day, 10th-year head coach Tim Cluess — who had been on a medical leave of absence since the middle of the season — announced that his health was forcing him to retire.
Less than 48 hours later, a Hall of Famer is taking over in New Rochelle, an area which — oh, by the way — has been labeled as the “epicenter” of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I’m incredibly excited,” Pitino told CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein. “I started my journey in basketball in Manhattan. I’m now able to end my journey in New Rochelle. I’ve admired the stellar job that Tim Cluess has done. I’m going to try and carry that on and elevate it to prominence.
“I missed college basketball when I was in Greece. I’m back home where it all started. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
A year ago, Pitino stated that he wouldn’t take a head coaching job at a school where he didn’t believe he could win a national title. After seeing initial talks with programs like Rhode Island and St. John’s never make it past those early stages, it seems that became less of a requirement for Pitino’s return to the sport he loves.
At Iona, Pitino may not be taking over a national title contender, but it is one of the most successful programs in the mid/low major ranks. The Gaels have been to the NCAA tournament six times since 2012, and had played in seven consecutive MAAC tournament championship games before this season.
Glovaski and the rest of the higher-ups at Iona make this move knowing full well that Pitino could be hit with a show-cause or some other penalties for his part in what will ultimately be Louisville’s second bout with the NCAA. In round one, Pitino was hit with a suspension for the first five ACC games of the 2017-18 season, a suspension he ultimately never served after being fired before the start of said season.
Whether you wish him well or you don’t, you have to admit this: The man still knows how to make a splash. In any other year, this would be a blip in the middle of one of the most jam-packed sports weekends of the year. Now, it’s the only thing people have to talk about.