The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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April 3, 2013

Minnesota hires FIU’s Richard Pitino as basketball coach

MINNEAPOLIS — Richard Pitino was regarded as one of the nation’s up-and-coming young coaches at Florida International and comes with a last name that draws immediate respect in all corners of college basketball.

That combination was too good for Minnesota to pass up. 

Pitino has agreed to take over for the fired Tubby Smith, the university announced on Wednesday evening. Athletic director Norwood Teague said the final terms of the contract would be worked out as the week goes on and Pitino was expected to be introduced by Friday.

In his lone season at Florida International, the son of Louisville coach Rick Pitino led the Panthers to an 18-14 record, the school’s first winning season in 13 years. He turns 31 in September, fitting the profile of a rising star that Teague has preferred to hire in the past.

Smith, who was fired last week after six seasons at Minnesota, was hired at Texas Tech on Monday.

Finding a replacement for Smith, who brought the Golden Gophers to three NCAA tournaments and delivered the program’s first tourney victory since 1997 with a win over UCLA this year, was a somewhat laborious task.

Many expected Teague and associate athletic director Mike Ellis — two men considered to have strong contacts in the college basketball coaching world — to go for a big name to bring a different energy into a program they felt had hit a wall.

But Shaka Smart, who was hired by Teague at VCU, and Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg parlayed interest from Minnesota into lucrative long-term deals to remain at their schools. Alum and former NBA coach Flip Saunders turned down an offer last weekend, and the Gophers reportedly swung and missed at several other candidates as well, including Butler’s Brad Stevens.

In the end, Pitino’s pedigree and connections to another top coach in Florida’s Billy Donovan may have sealed the deal and assuaged any concerns about a relative lack of head coaching experience. Teague hired Smart off Donovan’s staff, and the charismatic young coach took VCU to the Final Four. Before Smart, Teague worked with Anthony Grant, another former assistant of Donovan’s.

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