ALBANY — It may have been Rick Pitino’s last game as Iona men’s basketball head coach, and they cut down the net.
What a way to go out, for someone well-accustomed to cutting down nets, after conference championships and even two national championships. Blaze of glory, etc.
Welp, not exactly, this time.
One of the nets at MVP Arena got snarled up on Friday, while Connecticut was up by 20 on Iona with three minutes left in their first-round NCAA tournament game, and a guy lugged a ladder out onto the floor to replace it, making over 14,000 people wait a little longer for the inevitable.
The question now, after the Huskies polished off the Gaels 87-63, is whether Pitino’s departure from Iona is inevitable.
He’s been answering that question all week, and now that Iona’s season is over, those questions will persist.
The Hall of Famer, who spent five years in coaching purgatory during a legal fight with the University of Louisville, which fired him in 2017 over a recruiting scandal, resurrected his college coaching career in New Rochelle with two NCAA Tournament appearances in three seasons.
That, and his already-established legend status, should put him in high demand, and there will be plenty of openings out there at more glamorous and high-profile spots than Iona and the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
The connect-the-dots crowd has settled on St. John’s as an obvious destination for Pitino.
On Friday, he denied that he had put any thought into leaving, but he’ll be compelled to think about it now.
“I really haven’t put any thought into it at all,” Pitino said. “I think when you start thinking ahead, you always fail, and we put a lot of effort into this game. And … I don’t know if another job is right for me. I don’t know that.”
The rumor mill settled on St. John’s because it’s close to Pitino’s home, the Red Storm are a once proud program trying to climb out of mediocrity and they play in the Big East.
Pitino also has a Providence College connection with the current St. John’s president, Rev. Brian Shanley, a former Providence president who has built a reputation for improving campus facilities at both Providence and St. John’s. Pitino coached at Providence from 1985 to 1987, when Shanley was taught there.
Pitino has repeatedly dismissed suggestions that he’s headed to St. John’s by pointing out that he hasn’t stepped foot on the campus for decades.
“Somebody sent me a [YouTube] clip, one of the funniest games of all-time was 1987, there’s a loose ball, it goes out of bounds, we’re [Providence] up one, and it goes out of bounds,” Pitino said. “And Louie’s [St. John’s head coach Lou Carnesecca] going crazy, saying, ‘There’s one second on the clock! One second on the clock!’
“Probably was. I got my team, I threw Billy Donovan in the shower, and he says, ‘Coach, my shoes are on.’ I said, ‘Turn the water on, get in the shower.’ The referee comes out and says, ‘One second,’ and I said, ‘I’m not coming out, my guys are in the shower.’ And we never came out, and the referee, Timmy Higgins, goes, ‘Game over.’
“So that was about the last thing I remember about being at St. John’s. That was 1987, guys. Nineteen-eighty-seven.”
It’s a great story — Pitino has more than a few of those — but isn’t all that convincing, if the goal is to deflect speculation that he’s headed there, or somewhere else.
Asked to reflect on the opportunity Iona provided him, during a time when he had been out of coaching for two years and missed it so much that he took a Euro League job in Greece, Pitino said:
“First of all, I was totally exonerated because I was innocent [in the Louisville scandal]. I got two Level 2 violations of not being able to monitor [his program]. I got letters from every player I’ve ever coached, every assistant coach that’s ever coached for me, to send to them to say what a disciplinarian I am.
“So I had to wait five years to basically stall my career, to get exonerated. I was exonerated by an impartial committee made up of legal people. Legal people. So for five years they put me in the outhouse because they couldn’t get their stuff together. It’s just the breaks of the game. You can’t look back.”
So let’s look ahead, at the tangled future.
It’s impossible to believe that Pitino won’t take a hard look at the offers that are sure to come his way.
He may be grateful to Iona for giving him a chance and appreciative of what he calls “the culture” there that put him in position to win.
He also pointed to the talent deficiency in the frontcourt that was largely responsible for the Gaels struggling against a big-time program in an NCAA tournament game, as Iona did against Connecticut.
“The past, it’s always cherished,” he said “We learn from it. We cherish the past. I’ve been to seven Finals Fours, two championships, and I cherish them. I also learn from the mistakes that were made.
“The present is where we’re at right now, and it’s disappointing for my guys, because they’re a great group of guys.
“And the future, I really have no idea what the future may bring, because I’ve got to look at the grand scheme of things, about winning, and winning is very important …”
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