Firing Richard Pitino was a Mistake

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan vs Minnesota
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been exactly three years since Richard Pitino was fired as Minnesota Gophers men’s basketball coach. Since the split, both he and the University of Minnesota have had two very different experiences. Pitino took a step down in class from power 5 to group of 5 as the head coach of the New Mexico Lobos of the Mountain West Conference.

Richard Pitino showing out at New Mexico

In Albuquerque, Richard has thrived and it happened pretty quickly. After going 13-19 in his first season, Pitino turned it around in year 2, leading the Lobos to a 22-12 (8-10) record, good for 6th in the Mountain West. In year 3 (this season) New Mexico went 26-9 (10-8) to take another step forward. Still the NCAA Tournament was far from a lock… until Pitino ran the table in the Mountain West Tournament and the Lobos earned an automatic bid.

The 2023-24 Lobos lead the Mountain West in scoring with 81.7 points per game and seeing a Pitino team win a tournament is no surprise either. The Gophers were always a difficult out under Richard, who won the NIT tournament in his rookie season as head coach at the U of M.

Meanwhile, back in Dinkytown, the Minnesota Gophers are finally starting to show improvement under third-year head coach Ben Johnson, who at 43-years-old is the youngest power-5 head coach in the country.

Ben Johnson struggling as Minnesota Gophers head coach

Ben Johnson Minnesota Gophers
Photo: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

After collecting just six total Big Ten wins in his first two seasons (22-49 overall), Ben pulled a talented team together and retained his job by going 18-14 (8-10). Now, it’s about keeping the talent from his 2023-24 roster to stay for 2024-25, something that is more likely than most would think, in the NIL age.

But a closer look into the season shows one of the easiest Gopher basketball schedules in recent program history and a team that was never in serious March Madness contention, even during by far the best year of Johnson’s young tenure in Dinkytown.

We can argue semantics and talk about the future of both coaches. How long Pitino will stay in Albuquerque vs Johnson being a U of M lifer or the age and experience of both coaches. Sure, go for it. But those are all causes to the one obvious problem. Mark Coyle and the University of Minnesota made a mistake when they fired Richard Pitino, and replaced him with Ben Johnson.

Honestly, the mistake was in a lack of foresight. Pitino was fired in March, 2021, just as the transfer portal was becoming the wild wild west of college athletics. A transfer portal Pitino valued way more than other coaches, early on when transferring between schools started to become easier, just prior to the pandemic.

Related: Tom Izzo: Gophers Could be Team to Beat in Big Ten if Ben Johnson Keeps Them Together

It’s where he found Marcus Carr, Reggie Lynch, Peyton Willis, Liam Robbins… or about half of all of the Gophers’ best players while Pitino was in Dinkytown. Richard had to be good in the portal back then because he was not good on the recruiting trail, late in his tenure as Gophers head coach, a deficiency that ultimately got him fired.

It started in 2017 when Pitino took Jellyfam Isaiah Washington (New York) over Champlin Park’s McKinley Wright. Not only was Wright the better player (he went onto Colorado and became a star, before moving on for a short career in the NBA), but it pissed off the entire Minnesota basketball recruiting base, which was packed with talent at the time.

In 2018, Pitino got Daniel Oturu, Gabe Kalscheur and Jarvis Omersa to sign with their home state Gophers, but after that, it became very difficult to land in-state kids, which really rubbed Minnesota sports fans the wrong way. Pitino didn’t do the best job of gaining everone’s trust back.

Let’s just say this: seeing Pitino at a MN high school basketball game was a much more rare sight than it should have been, especially given all of the local talent around the Twin Cities at the time. And that, again, brings us back to Ben Johnson, who was hired because of his ties to the local basketball community in the wider Minneapolis/St. Paul area. He’s from DeLaSalle high school and he went to the U of M.

Then… everything about college athletics changed with NIL and a wide open transfer portal

richard pitino new mexico lobos
Photo: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Makes sense right? At the time, the argument was pretty easy to make. But the problem is that, even back in 2021, the landscape was moving away from high school recruiting and toward a much greater emphasis on the transfer portal. No longer were high school relationships that stretch back to middle school nearly as important as just a year or two prior. And once NIL entered the mix, those relationships meant even less.

Thus, the main reason why Johnson was brought in and why Richard Pitino was fired, high school recruiting, went from being by far the most important part of building a successful college basketball program, down and out of the top-5… maybe top-10. Now, the teams that win are the teams that can retain their most talented guys and fish into the portal to find the talent they need.

Players who land at one college after high school can now transfer as many times as they want, without penalty. And most will transfer at least once before they move on from college basketball. Which is part of why we’re seeing Pitino have so much immediate success down in the desert… and Ben Johnson struggle to rebuild a program in a changing landscape that he and the University of Minnesota were not prepared for.

Related: Future Gopher Isaac Asuma Nearly Posts Triple-Double in โ€˜Border Battleโ€™ Showcase

Had Coyle left Pitino in place at the U of M, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have been able to bring even more talent into a Big Ten that now lacks a lot of it. Hell, the Mountain West is going to get 6 schools named to the NCAA Tournament tonight, which is expected to be the same number as the Big Ten.

Of course, we can’t change the past. We have to hope Ben can continue to build on the success he had in 2023-24 and that he ends up being a good hire, long-term, even if the decision to fire his predecessor and hire him was a mistake in the first place.

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