Richard Pitino was hired Tuesday as the University of New Mexico’s men’s basketball coach following his eight-year run in the Big Ten with Minnesota. On Friday, he held a one-on-one interview with The New Mexican.
The interview began just minutes after Ohio State, a Big Ten rival of Minnesota’s, was shocked by by No. 15 seed Oral Roberts in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in West Lafayette, Ind.:
A: You know, they [Ohio State] were a weird team. We played them at our place [on Jan. 3] and beat them by, like, 30 [it was actually 77-60] and then they went on this run. It was strange.
Q: So what’s your bracket look like right now?
A: Yeah, I don’t have a bracket.
Q: There’s a trend in college coaching. You have Juwan Howard, Patrick Ewing, Penny Hardaway, you even have Deion Sanders coming back to coaching. What was Richard Pitino like as an athlete?
A: Nothing compared to Deion Sanders and Juwan Howard, I’m sure about that. I would say solid high school player. I had a decision to make out of high school; play [Division II] or [Division III], or I had an opportunity to be a high school coach as a college freshman in Rhode Island. So I went that route. I was a high school coach for two years, and then kind of a video guy for Providence College, and the rest is history. Nowhere near the type of player that Deion Sanders was.
Q: There’s a lot of detractors out there about coaching hires and player moves. How thick does your skin have to be if you want to be a major-college coach?
A: Very, very thick, yeah. And you know what, honestly, I think as you get to know me, you’ll see I’ve got thicker skin than a lot of coaches out there. Just growing up around it, it just doesn’t get to me. You know why? Because it’s very, very predictable and every coach deals with it.
Q: How thick does your skin have to be when your last name is Pitino?
A: Growing up a coach’s son, my dad — I mean, he’s in the Hall of Fame — and he goes from Kentucky and winning national championships to Boston, doesn’t do as great, then he goes back to Louisville, the place that hated him before. Right? So I’m used to that. Like I said, it doesn’t really phase me, doesn’t really take me off my path and doesn’t offend me. It is what it is. When you’re in this profession, everybody deals with it and you just have to move on.
Q: Was there any part of you that considered something other than coaching?
A: I always wanted to be part of a team. I always wanted to be in a gym. I wasn’t sure the capacity — high school coach, college, NBA, front office, whatever. I just wanted to be a part of a team, and when I became a high school coach in college I got them, but I just knew I wanted to be around it.
A: New Mexico fans think their program is bigger than it actually is. Having coached on the national stage, what is UNM’s reputation out there, and the Mountain West’s for that matter?
A: I would say every program thinks they’re bigger than what they actually are. I think that’s a human-nature way, to be self-absorbed and be in your own world, right? So that’s normal. … I know one thing; New Mexico, when I had an opportunity to pursue it, I knew it was an unbelievable fan base that cared. That’s very, very important. If you want to win championships, you need that. … The perception of the Mountain West is really good. You had four teams, I believe, play in the postseason this year. Well, two of the programs that have been traditionally great have been New Mexico and UNLV, and they were down. So I think you’ve got a lot of programs, some really cool venues. I’m excited to recruit to it, I’m excited to compete in it.
Q: Since you mentioned UNLV, rumors have again surfaced that a guy named Rick Pitino might leave his post at Iona to fill the Rebels’ coaching vacancy. Any chance we might see a Pitino vs. Pitino matchup twice a year from now on?
A: Yeah, I think that’s a lot of internet rumors. I think that he’s really, really excited to be at Iona. He’s at a different stage in his life. I don’t think media people and fans and the least-reputable news thing in the world, which is Twitter, understand the true story. He’s really happy to be in New York and I don’t see him leaving anytime soon.
Q: Your uncle, Bill Minardi, died in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. You were still a teenager when that happened. What impact did that have on your life?
A: That was hard. Sometimes, as a coach, when you lose a game you think that it’s the end of the world. It’s not. I hope as you guys get to know me that I’ve got a really good perspective about this. My uncle Bill was like a second father to me. I was at Providence College at the time, a freshman, and turned on the news. Terrorist attack never really came to mind then. But, yes, very challenging. His kids and us growing up, we vacationed together. … I think more than anything it taught me to appreciate the people that you love around because you never know. It was a horrible reminder to live for today.
Q: This year’s Lobos were mentally and physically broken by the coronavirus pandemic. They lived on the road for all but a few days this season, never getting a taste of playing in The Pit. Other than getting games back home next year, how is that fixed?
A: These kids have been through a lot. Even my team at Minnesota, we got hit with COVID, about 80 percent of our team got hit before the season but not during the season. We only had one game postponed, but I know the mental toll it took on them. … Yes, this team [the Lobos] won two games in the league and that’s a lot to go through, but these kids lost their coaching staff that recruited them, they dealt with COVID. It’s very important the next few weeks to take the basketball part out of it and just get to know them.
Q: Coaches in the past have identified two major problems with recruiting to New Mexico: Population (or lack thereof) and location. Our state doesn’t produce a lot of Division I talent and we’re 450 miles from the nearest big city, Denver. They’re issues you can’t do anything about, so how do you get around them?
A: You’re going to have to recruit nationally, and you’re going to have to recruit places that make sense. California makes sense. Arizona makes sense. Colorado makes sense. Texas makes sense. Nevada makes sense. We’re going to have to live in those areas. The biggest key is we have a lot to sell when you get here. Me, I hadn’t spent a lot of time here. Recruiting visits are usually 48 hours. I’ve been here 48 hours and I’m in love with it already. I know once we get them here they’ll love it as well.