Wednesday, July 3, 2013
Pitino aims to rebuild Gopher recruiting
By Adam Finkelstein
Minnesota first-year head coach Richard Pitino has been working night and day trying to sell a new era in Golden Gophers basketball.
It’s a battle he is fighting on several fronts, simultaneously trying to connect with his new team, re-engage a jaded fan base and redefine his program on the recruiting front.
The last of those three endeavors might prove to be the most difficult.
For as different as Pitino and his predecessor, Tubby Smith, may seem at first glance, they actually have some core similarities. Both are disciples of Pitino’s father, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. Smith was the elder Pitino’s assistant and then successor at Kentucky, and Richard was thought to be following a similar path at Louisville before leaving to take over at Florida International.
Those similar backgrounds made the younger Pitino a risky hire for relatively new Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague, who faced questions both for removing Smith and then replacing him with someone from the same pedigree.
But for Teague, the differences between Pitino and Smith were far more important than any similarities, especially when it comes to recruiting.
Right or wrong, Smith was perceived to be old-fashioned and conservative. No one was denying his ability to X-and-O, run practice or manage his program, but there were consistent and increasing questions about his ability to recruit high-level national talent.
Then there’s Pitino. Armed with the same look, charisma and name for which his father is well known, he recruited top national talent as an assistant at Florida and Louisville and made an immediate buzz with the success of his first season at FIU.
Quickly establishing ties with in-state recruits like No. 1 point guard Tyus Jones will be key for Richard Pitino at Minnesota.
But while he may be uniquely equipped for the challenge at Minnesota, rebranding a program in recruiting doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that begins with an immediate first impression, is nurtured by persistent and strategic hard work and, more than anything else, is established through sheer results.
The first impression was necessary when Pitino made his arrival in Minnesota, an area where he didn’t have any especially strong roots.
“I think whenever you first take a job like the University of Minnesota, where it’s the only Division I school in the state, it’s very, very important that you recognize the players in your area, in your state, and you make sure you identify those guys,” Pitino said. “The thing that’s unique about Minnesota is that the players who grow up here want to go to the University of Minnesota, so we reached out to as many guys as possible and then reached out nationally.”
To that end, Pitino and his staff have closed the gap with in-state phenoms like point guard Tyus Jones (Apple Valley, Minn./Apple Valley) and shooting guard Rashad Vaughn (Minneapolis/Robbinsdale Cooper); made ESPN 100 power forward Reid Travis (Minneapolis/De La Salle) a priority; and reached out to as many local high school and AAU coaches as possible.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s recruiting expansion beyond its home base has thus far been rooted in the Northeast, a region with far more established ties for Pitino and members of his coaching staff.
“I think we’ve got a lot of ties to the Northeast with myself, [assistant coach] Kimani Young and [assistant coach] Dan McHale,” Pitino said. “Recruiting comes down to relationships, and we’ve got relationships there.”
In addition to relationships, Pitino also sees opportunity. He believes he has something unique to offer prospects from the Northeast and a way to differentiate his program from the dozens of other high majors that already recruit the region.
“Minneapolis reminds me a lot of Boston,” he said. “It has a lot of the great things that those Northeast cities have, but you have the Big Ten so you have that exposure.”
With relationships and opportunity alike, Pitino and his staff have spent as much time in the Northeast as any program over the last few months. They’re making no secret of the fact that they intend to pursue the best prospects in the region and, most important, take a backseat to no one.
With strong inroads now made in both the Midwest and Northeast, the task at hand is to get some of these top prospects on Minnesota’s campus while continuing to grow and develop the Golden Gophers brand across the country.
“I truly believe we can recruit nationally here,” Pitino said. “I think people don’t realize how great this city really is. It’s a great city, it’s a great conference and it’s an easy place to get to. So I think that’s the key. If you have a desirable location to visit, we’ve got to put ourselves in positions to get some kids here for official visits.”
You can bet Pitino will be working night and day on that as well.