Let me tell you a little story about a college basketball program. They are a member of a highly competitive basketball conference. They haven’t won a conference title in recent memory and never as a member of the conference as currently constructed. They’ve appeared in the NCAA Tournament 10 times, including three Sweet Sixteens, two Elite Eights, and one Final Four. The team has been pretty competitive with their in-conference foes but can never seem to quite get over the hump and win the big games. Incoming talent is pretty solid and they’ve had the same head coach for seven years. He currently holds a 47-65 (.420) conference record and the team just exited the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the first appearance during his tenure.
Sounds a lot like a program you might bleed maroon and gold for. Heck, if you weren’t a Golden Gopher basketball expert, you might think I was describing Minnesota to the t. The truth is, this is the description of Florida State and still-head coach Leonard Hamilton after the 2008 season. Since that first round exit in his seventh season, Florida State basketball has reached unparalleled heights for their program including three Sweet Sixteens (doubling the previous total over the first 60 years of the program), two Elite Eights, and the program’s first regular season ACC title this year. Hamilton has now been the coach for 18 seasons and routinely pulls in high level recruits, maintaining a steady flow of talent in an incredibly blue-blood-heavy top tier of the ACC.
Now here’s the thing. If Florida State had decided to part ways after season six when Hamilton hadn’t appeared in a single NCAA Tournament or after season seven when they finally made it during his tenure but were upset as a 5-seed to the detestable Wisconsin Badgers, would this success have come to the Florida State program? It’s possible that they could have fired Hamilton, found the next hot name, and captured or increased the success they’ve seen under his tenure. But it’s also possible that had they fired Hamilton, they’d be two coaches removed from that particular decision spinning their wheels and attempting to gain relevancy in the deep ACC. However, they stayed the course with a coach who had a solid but not overly impressive start and it has paid dividends over the long haul.
Now I know what you’re thinking... C’mon mowe0018, you cherry-picked a single example from dozens and dozens of options to prove your point. Why yes I did. The two programs are eerily comparable. Florida State basketball has long been an after thought not only in the ACC pecking order but on their own campus. Football has been king in Tallahassee for time immemorial. The basketball program has always had some amount of competency but never enough to really matter. Conference titles have eluded it. Consistent success has been sparse. All that’s missing is a few well-placed scandals and you’d have a carbon copy of the Minnesota history of the last several decades.
Firing Coach Richard Pitino after this season would guarantee another another program reboot. What it would not guarantee is future success with the next coach that is hired. Some might say that a reboot is necessary but I’m not quite so sure. The Gophers are 14-16 a year after making the second round of the NCAA Tournament. While the overall record is underwhelming, one must examine some of the underlying stories involved to fully understand the current state of the program.
The Big Ten was historically deep this year creating a scheduling anomaly that was compounded by a challenging non-conference slate. This 14-16 team is actually the second-best Gopher squad by KenPom efficiency rating since 2000. While that might be a tallest midget type superlative, it shows that the team has reached a level of quality that has eluded the program in recent years and that’s with the team losing its two best players, one of which could have returned for his senior season.
I firmly believe that firing another head coach can do a lot more harm than good for this program. Coach Pitino is still only 37 years old. He is still learning. While some detractors might say he should learn on the job elsewhere, I would say that a coach growing with his program has a certain allure to it that I find intriguing. Despite the myriad of close losses Minnesota has experienced this season, I wouldn’t lay the entirety of the blame at Pitino’s feet. There have been times of poor execution, missed free throws, and questionable officiating that snow-balled this once-promising season into the sub-.500 mess we find it today. While some of the blame certainly has to be placed at the feet of the head coach, the Gophers have been legitimately competitive in all but three games this season while having the 3rd most difficult schedule in the country according to KenPom.com. When was the last time we said that about a Minnesota team? Even the best teams in the post-scandal era have been dominated more often and haven’t looked remotely competitive against elite-level teams. This squad scratched and clawed (and in some cases, defeated) against some of the best teams in the nation including Maryland, Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse, and a Michigan squad that beat the 2nd ranked team in the nation on a neutral court.
Additionally, the roster is extremely young and looks promising when considering returning talent and the incoming 2020 class. While Daniel Oturu’s decision to return or head to the NBA looms large, is that not more a credit to Pitino and his staff on the ability to successful recruit a local product and turn him into an NBA draftee in only two years?
I think a program like Minnesota needs to be very careful when deciding to fire a coach who has made the tournament in two of the last three (likely soon-to-be four) seasons. There are a lot of positives going for the University of Minnesota basketball program. It’s the only Division I program in a state chalk full of talent. It has state-of-the-art facilities, several professional teams which help for sports-related careers after college, and an attractive urban setting. It is a member of the Big Ten, a premier college basketball conference. But let’s not pretend that this position is the belle of the ball when it comes to job openings in a given off-season.
I think Pitino has shown the ability to improve as a coach as well as recruit at a level that will allow for a highly competitive team in the Big Ten. Imagine last year’s squad with Marcus Carr at point guard or this year’s squad with Amir Coffey. The components have been there but extenuating circumstances have changed the course of several seasons. While in-state recruiting and roster depth leave something to be desired, those are things that can be improved upon over time. While some people think that seven years is enough time to “know” if a coach will succeed or not, that may not be the case as it pertains to Coach Pitino.
Florida State stuck with Leonard Hamilton after 2008. They now stand as regular season ACC champions, recent Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen participants, and a likely 2-seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. That’s the kind of success we dream about for Minnesota. Perhaps patience should rule the day when it comes to deciding Richard Pitino’s fate this off-season. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.