A few things from today's introduction of Richard Pitino as FIU men's basketball coach:
It was an eclectic group attending the media session: the usual athletic department folks; a few players stopped their informal shootaround on the court below to check out the new guy; former director of basketball operations Hashim Ali Alauddeen was there.
Afterwards, Lekan Ajayi was brought in to meet Pitino and they were exchanging smiles and polite chatter as I left. Ajayi, a transfer from Wyoming, will be eligible after the 2012 fall semester. The 6-11 center got an 89 rating out of 100 by ESPN Scouts and was considered a coup for Wyoming. Smart move by Pitino. He said he hadn't spoken to any 2012 recruits yet, but might want to get on the phone with 6-4 Milton Doyle out of Chicago Marshall. You never know how recruits will flower or wilt in college, but The Chicago Tribune named Doyle third team All-State, a nice honor in a traditionally strong basketball area. If Pitino has to start over, he could do worse than those two guys.
Pitino also vowed to have an up-tempo team that would be fun for fans and players. I don't doubt it. He's only four years older than the three-point shot in college ball. It's no accident his dad's first Final Four team, 1987 Providence, came in the first year of the three. Rick Pitino resurrected Kentucky in the 1990s by being one of the first coaches to make the three-pointer part of his team's offensive nucleus. But have you ever noticed no coach comes in saying, "We're going to be a walk-it-up, half-court team that takes four passes on each half-court possession before we shoot?"
I got a solid "maybe" that sounded like a probably not when I asked Pitino former longtime Miami Pace High coach Mark Lieberman, Louisville's Director of Basketball Operations, would be joining his staff.
I asked Pitino about the transition from the Kentuckiana area, where the game rules to an extent that it's just called "ball," to building support for the No. 2 or 3 Division I program in area that's the statistically worst large US metro area for college basketball. He replied, "Winning is important. Playing hard and doing things the right way is important. We've got to do a great job of recruiting. We've got to do a great job of developing players. We've got to do a great job of getting out in the community and meeting as many people as possible. The great thing about FIU is with 46,000 students, there's a lot of alumni, a lot of people throughout the community who are dying to support this program."
Sunday night at the Panthers playoff game (that's hockey, folks), a few of us who knew we'd be at the first appearance of Pitino (whenever it happened) hoped Pete Garcia either wouldn't be there or would be available in separate media session or one-on-one discussions. If he's on the podium with Pitino, we sighed, Pitino has to sit there while we ask questions about the Isiah Thomas firing and the scholarship releases.
(And, no, we can't just not ask because that would violate basic journalistic common sense and get us gutted by any editor not too busy to do his job).
Sure enough, after opening statements -- yes, Garcia did mention "national championship" again and I'm thinking, "how about just 10 wins on a regular basis?" -- Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press asked why the firings took so long to happen and why did they happen?
“I appreciate the question. I said in the release (10 days) ago, I want to thank Isiah and his staff for the three yars they put in to help put in to help build this program. I’ll always be grateful to his staff. I appreciate everything they did. However, I’m going to stick with that statement for right now. Today is about Richard Petino and FIU basketball going forward. But I want tos ay this: I'm grateful and thankful to Isiah Thomas and his staff for the work they did here for three years."
Tim followed up by asking if Monday was about going forward, what about the players who've asked to be released from their scholarship...?
"That's an NCAA procedure," Garcia said. "I'll have coach address it in a second. Obviously, our interest is for the players to stay here and get their degrees. There is a process that goes on. But I'll let coach address how he feels about it."
Pitino took the baton and said, "The most important thing for us with these guys signed up to play basketball at FIU is to get their degree. For us, that's the most important thing. They’ve got a week left of school, then they’ve got finals. They need to focus on finishing up strongly in the classroom and studying for their finals. And They’ve got to get to know me. They’re not going to want to play for me without even knowing me. The most important thing for me the first couple of days is to be around these guys as much as possible.
"They’re going to have to be recruited a little bit. I certainly understand that. I’m fully confident I can do that. At the end of the day, the most important thing for these guys is they're provided the opportunity to do well in the classroom and finish up strong.”
Garcia chimed back in, "One of the things that Isiah taught these players was loyalty. I appreciate and respect their loyalty that they're showing. I'm grateful for that, too."
Then, I asked when first contact was made with Pitino, how many applicants did he speak to and was first contact made at the Final Four? Garcia was there. So was Pitino, as a Louisville assistant. Less than a week later, the axes fell. Nine days after that, Pitino had the job.
"I was at the Final Four. I didn't hlod the Final Four results against Coach Petino. I did make contact wtih him on Tuesday of last week. I did not talk to anyone for about four or five days. We gathered information, we went through resumes, we did our due diligence, we narrowed it down to a number of finalists and started bringing them in last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. After that process was done, sat down with the administration here and we made our final decision."
Senior Katie Mundy leads the field at the Sun Belt Conference Championships with a 3-under 69 after the first day. FIU is fourth as a team.