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Men's basketball: Rick Pitino makes his comeback at Iona College

Josh Thomson
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Iona basketball coach Rick Pitino runs a practice with his team at Iona College in New Rochelle Nov. 4, 2020.

If the perception exists that he was desperate to return to college basketball, Rick Pitino has been quick to deny it. Pitino actually insists he was more eager to return to the NBA than college, but in tiny Iona College, a mid-major Catholic school in Westchester County, N.Y., he found major appeal.

"If Iona was in Pennsylvania, I would've stayed in Europe," he said.

Instead, with a homecoming of sorts, the Long Island native has begun his comeback — three years after scandals and investigation brought an abrupt end to the Hall-of-Fame coach's tenure at Louisville.

Now 68, Pitino hasn't set a timeline for how long he will coach the Gaels, but he has been steadfast in one prediction: The job will be his last.

"They've all used it as springboards for different jobs," Pitino said, referencing some past Iona coaches, like Jim Valvano and current Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard. "I'm the opposite. For me, it's not a springboard. It's an ending."

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Many had wondered if Pitino's last chapter would prove to be more infamous. Louisville fired him for cause in October 2017 after an FBI investigation into college basketball revealed a six-figure pay-to-play scheme centered around five-star recruit Brian Bowen.

Two years following his dismissal, Pitino settled a $38.7 million lawsuit with the university. His firing was reclassified as a resignation that claimed "zero liability" for Pitino or Louisville.

Still, the NCAA had already hit Pitino with a five-game suspension he has yet to serve. The NCAA also levied on him a Level Two violation, which could potentially lead to a suspension or future recruiting limitations.

Iona basketball coach Rick Pitino speaks to senior guard Asante Gist during practice with his team at Iona College in New Rochelle Nov. 4, 2020.

Pitino doesn't expect a resolution for several years and continues to deny any wrongdoing. He believes he would "be out of basketball" if the NCAA had strong evidence against him.

"I have no concerns about the NCAA or any penalties at all," Pitino said. "I've never done anything to hurt a student athlete, hurt a team, or to go against the grain of the rules we play by. Were mistakes made and am I responsible? Certainly I am. I was the leader of the program. But I know exactly what they have. They have nothing on me at all that I've done wrong in this case."

For its part, Iona's administration faced criticism for hiring Pitino in March. A few years prior to the pay-to-play scandal, a former staffer, Andre McGee, was found to have provided prostitutes and strippers to Pitino's recruits in an on-campus dorm.

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In response, the university self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season while the allegations were investigated. But the NCAA eventually vacated Louisville's 2012 Final Four appearance and 123 wins, including the 2013 national championship, making the program the only men's basketball team ever stripped of a Division I title.

Iona basketball coach Rick Pitino runs a practice with his team at Iona College in New Rochelle Nov. 4, 2020.

Pitino's past had made him toxic. But after coaching the last two seasons at Panathinaikos, a EuroLeague and Greek Basket League team in Athens, Greece, he found a supporter in Iona's new president Seamus Carey.

The two had some familiarity. Prior to Carey coming to New Rochelle, he served in the same role for five years at Transylvania University, a small, private liberal arts school in Lexington, Kentucky.

The former basketball player and New York native had met Pitino through Rick Avare, a Transylvania alum and Pitino's business partner, and they attended several Louisville games together. That relationship led Carey to contact Avare last winter when Iona's successful head coach, Tim Cluess, was in the midst of missing the entire season with a health matter.

Carey was uncertain of Cluess' future with the program and asked Avare if Pitino would have interest in Iona. The coach filtered some pointed questions through Avare.

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"He wanted to make sure wherever he went, the admin and the program would be supportive of him," Carey said.

Carey and Iona's athletic director, Matt Glovaski, flew to Madrid prior to Panathinaikos' Euroleague game at Real Madrid on Feb. 24. They met with Pitino for several hours at their hotel and later joined him, his son, niece and nephew at an Irish pub.

"The only place open on a Monday night after his game," Carey said.

Seamus Carey became the new president of Iona College in New Rochelle on July 1, 2019.

Although the two were familiar with one another, they had no personal relationship. Carey found himself much more interested in learning about Pitino than, say, what his plans were for the Gaels' offense or defense.

"I was very interested in meeting him as a person," Carey said. "What I wasn't concerned about was the allegations brought against him by the NCAA because we had done our work. We knew the charges. We knew what he didn't do, so I wasn't worried about the NCAA part of it."

Pitino said he never pitched himself for the job during that meeting, but conceded he didn't have to. Carey already had a familiarity with him and what he'd done with the Louisville program, in addition to key people close to him, a list that includes Iona booster, Robert LaPenta, Pitino's one-time partner in owning horses. 

"There's the truth and the non-truth," Pitino said. "The only people who know the truth are people who know you, good and bad. Seamus is close with Rick Avare. LaPenta is close with my family. Those people know the type of programs I've run. They know the truth, not hearsay. It was easier because you never had to prove your integrity or your honor. They already knew it."

The college moved quickly to hire Pitino the day after Cluess' resignation in March. The COVID-19 pandemic kept Pitino off campus until the summer, and kept the myth of the man circulating among returning players and the eight new recruits brought in, sight unseen, by Pitino and his staff.

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Iona's Nelly Junior Joseph (23) during practice at Iona College in New Rochelle Nov. 4, 2020. Joseph is one of eight newcomers brought in by Rick Pitino.

Senior guard Isaiah Ross started a group text among players, stressing to prepare for Pitino to hold them to a high-major standard. They finally met him in mid-August after out-of-state players served a two-week quarantine off campus.

For Ross' part, the part of Pitino's past that landed him at Iona meant nothing.

"No, not at all," he said. "I wasn't even thinking about things like that. He's so successful. I don't even really care about that kind of stuff."

Forward Dylan van Eyck, a Euroleague fan who watched Pitino at Louisville and during his stay in Greece, said he spent the first week somewhat starstruck. Pitino smoothed the getting-to-know-you by taking van Eyck, Ross and fellow seniors Asante Gist and Colton Cashaw to dinner.

Iona's Dylanvan Eyck (24) during practice at Iona College in New Rochelle Nov. 4, 2020.

"After the first week of conversations with him and really getting to know him as a coach and a man, it doesn't feel like I'm being coached by Rick Pitino anymore," van Eyck said. "I feel like I'm being coached by my coach."

Pitino has changed the team's practice structure significantly. Players come to the gym in small groups each day for 45 minutes of player development with him. Practices are devoted entirely to team concepts.

The players also believe the program's new infrastructure will give them a better chance to succeed. Last year, they were down a coach all season without Cluess, who had led them to four straight NCAA Tournaments. The Gaels, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference's winningest program since the conference began play during the 1981-82 season, suffered a rare losing season under acting coach Tra Arnold.

Iona College renovated the Hynes Athletics Center gym prior to the 2019-20 season.

"It's definitely been a change," Ross said. "We've gone from no coach to a Hall of Fame coach."

Pitino has brought high expectations off the court as well. He has helped fundraise close to $1 million for plans to build new basketball offices and locker rooms and improve the weight room inside the Hynes Athletics Center, which just opened a renovated 2,578-seat gym last year.

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The team has already worked to strengthen its non-conference schedule in the coming seasons. Iona has a signed three-year deal with Hofstra; a home-and-home against BYU highlighted by a game at Madison Square Garden; plus the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, which also features Kansas and Alabama, Pitino said.

Iona basketball coach Rick Pitino runs a practice with his team at Iona College in New Rochelle Nov. 4, 2020.

"It's more than what takes place between the lines," he added. "It has to be every single thing about the program. It has to reek excellence. That's my goal here. On-court achievements, of course, but achievements in facilities, achievements in scheduling, achievements with players being placed in high-level jobs after they're done playing. It's so many areas."

While the appeal of having such a difference-maker is clear for Iona in the win column and at the box office, Carey rejected any criticism that the college may have sold out its Catholic values.

Carey pointed to Iona's campus-wide devotion to Catholicism, and argued the "crux of our faith is forgiveness."

"He admits that he's made some mistakes," Carey said. "But this is where, while I think Rick Pitino will be great for Iona College, Iona College will be great for Rick."

Josh Thomson is the Sports Editor for The Journal News and Poughkeepsie Journal. He can be reached by e-mail at jthomson@lohud.com, on Twitter at @lohudinsider, and on Instagram at @lohudinsider.