Rick Pitino isn’t going into his first season at Iona with the sole intention of getting revenge on the forces that ran him out of college basketball.
That’s not to say he isn’t motivated.
“To say I have a chip on my shoulder would be incorrect. I have a boulder on my shoulder,” Pitino said. “Not for seeking revenge; it’s more to the fact I’m more passionate, more hungry, today than I was in my 30s. It’s because of my absence from the game of college basketball. I do have a major, major boulder on my shoulder — but not to stick it to people.”
Pitino has been out of the college game since Louisville fired him for cause in October 2017, following an FBI investigation into college basketball that included allegations regarding the Cardinals’ recruitment of Brian Bowen. Pitino has steadfastly maintained his innocence in the three years since his ouster, but zero colleges were willing to hire him in the two coaching carousel cycles that followed. He went overseas and took over the Greek club Panathinaikos in 2018, leading them to a Greek Cup and a Greek Basket League championship.
It was only a matter of time before he returned to college, and Iona stepped forward last spring when it needed to replace Tim Cluess, who resigned due to health issues.
Pitino’s last four jobs before Greece were some of the biggest in the sport: New York Knicks, Kentucky, Boston Celtics and Louisville. Iona is obviously a bit different, but it checks some other boxes that make Pitino very comfortable.
“If it was in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, North Carolina, I would not have taken the job. I live five miles away,” Pitino said of the New Rochelle, New York, campus. “I’m not looking to move. I’m looking to build it into something special. My biggest regret wasn’t leaving Kentucky. My biggest regret was leaving Providence. Iona reminds me so much of Providence. Small, Catholic school with a small, charming campus. It reminds me so much of what I had in ’87. It allured me here.”
At 68 years of age, Pitino is unlikely to change his coaching tactics too much. And despite turning over the roster and facing a rebuild, Iona has a tradition of success over the past decade. The Gaels have been to the NCAA tournament in six of the previous nine seasons, including four in a row prior to last season. So what’s the biggest thing Pitino is trying to accomplish early on?
It’s pretty simple: Move on from the NCAA cloud that has followed him the past few years; and Pitino knows he has to play a role in achieving that.
“Richard gave me a good piece of advice,” Pitino said, referring to his son, the head coach at Minnesota. “[He said] ‘Stop telling people how innocent you are. We believe it, but nobody else cares. They don’t care. You’re not gonna have people feeling sorry for you. You have to get over it and move on.’ So I don’t try to prove my innocence anymore. Only to the NCAA. Outside of them, I don’t care.”
And no, Pitino said he isn’t looking to use Iona as a springboard to rehab his image and quickly get back to the high-major level. He sees it as his career coming full circle. His first head-coaching job was at Boston University, more than 40 years ago, and now he is back at the mid-major level.
“It was a great way to start a career; it’s a great way to end a career,” Pitino said.
Pitino is one of six former Division I head coaches who are returning to the sideline for the 2020-21 season; the other five are Billy Gillispie, Andy Kennedy, Bryce Drew, Todd Lickliter and Rob Jeter. Each of the six spoke to ESPN about how they’ve changed as a coach and how they are approaching their new job.
If there is any “woe is me” in Billy Gillispie, it certainly doesn’t show. Once one of the rising stars in the coaching professions, going from a high school coach to the head coach at Kentucky in a 15-year span, Gillispie hasn’t coached a Division I game in eight years. And when he takes the floor in November, it will be at Tarleton State, which is making its transition from Division II to Division I.
But Gillispie isn’t feeling sorry for himself or reminiscing about his previous stops.
“There’s great things about every job, challenges at every job,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to be at Tarleton, really excited. I’m taking over a program that has had tremendous success, and I’m excited about having the opportunity to coach them into Division I. That’s how I’ve always looked at this place. Make it big-time where you are. Try to be where your feet are. If you do that, good things usually happen.”
Gillispie’s first Division I head-coaching job was at UTEP in 2002. Five years and three NCAA tournaments at UTEP and Texas A&M later, he was at Kentucky. But as fast as Gillispie rose to the top of the coaching ranks, he fell. Gillispie was fired at Kentucky after just two seasons in charge, then went 8-23 in one season at Texas Tech before resigning amid health concerns and claims of player mistreatment.
He spent most of the previous five years coaching at Ranger College, a junior college in Texas where he played from 1978 to 1980.
“I’m not one of those guys that thinks, the grass is always greener,” Gillispie said. I know what the so-called best jobs are. The best job is the one you have. The best league is the one you play in.
“If you think you’re too good to be here, then maybe you shouldn’t be here. I was very happy at every single spot; I was happy with where I was and not looking to be somewhere else.”
Gillispie noted that the sport has changed some from the last time he was coaching in Division I. (“The Lakers took 42 3s [the other night],” he said. “Everyone’s trying to shoot 30 to 45 3s.”) But for him, it’s just coaching basketball. No different than Texas’ Ellison High School or the University of Kentucky.
“Coaching is in your blood. Real coaching gets in your blood,” Gillispie said. “I didn’t do it for money, just for the love of the sport. Relationships with players that last forever. When I did step away for two or three months because of blood pressure — I’ve always said, I’d rather burn out than fade away. The president of [Ranger] once said to me, ‘You’d rather die on the sidelines than in the stands.’ He made a good point. It’s in my blood.”
Andy Kennedy, UAB
Andy Kennedy remembers it vividly. He had just come to an agreement with Ole Miss to step down at the end of the 2017-18 season, but after a few days, it didn’t feel right. The reason Kennedy went to athletic director Ross Bjork in early February of that year was because he knew his cycle in Oxford had run its course after 12 seasons. A change was inevitable, and he thought announcing that he was stepping down at the end of the season would help the program remain stable.
After less than a week, Kennedy changed his mind.
“We finished a game on the road at LSU, I came home, woke up Sunday morning with a conviction. It’s over,” Kennedy said. “I called my agent, called my AD, told them here’s what I’m doing to do; y’all figure it out. Twenty-four hours later, I announced it.”
Instead of waiting ’til the end of the season, Kennedy was stepping down immediately.
After initially thinking about getting back into coaching immediately, Kennedy decided to take some time off. He and his family moved to Birmingham, Alabama — he played in college at UAB and spent six years there as an assistant coach — and Kennedy did television work with ESPN and the SEC Network. His time on the TV side, Kennedy said, has brought about some tweaks to his coaching philosophy.
“It helped me change my perspective,” he said. “[When you’re a coach], everything you do, everything you see, you’re watching that with a critical eye. I might run this action; this is a good out of bounds play. From television, my perspective came from 30,000 feet, so to say. The coaches were incredibly accessible to me. When you’re a coach, the only shootarounds and practices you ever go to are the ones you’re involved in. Now I’m watching everybody from [John] Calipari to [Bruce Pearl] to [Nate] Oats to [Ben] Howland. It was incredibly valuable.”
Kennedy enjoyed his time in television, but at 51 years old, he said he always knew he was going to get back into coaching. The move to Birmingham turned out to be prescient. The Blazers decided to move on from Rob Ehsan last spring, and a couple of days later, UAB’s athletic director was in Kennedy’s living room. A couple of days after that, Kennedy was close to a deal.
“The arena [Bartow Arena] is named after a guy I played for [Gene Bartow]. I love the community,” Kennedy said. “My goal is to get the program back to where Coach Bartow had it, as it relates to his vision. I’m fortunate to have another opportunity … And I didn’t have to move.”
If there was a high-major firing that raised eyebrows around college basketball over the past couple of seasons, it was Bryce Drew at Vanderbilt. While Drew had only been with the Commodores for three seasons, he had gone to one NCAA tournament and had recruited two five-star prospects. But in 2018-19, Vandy went just 9-23 after top player Darius Garland was lost for the season just five games in, and it didn’t win an SEC game.
“Some of the issues that we had during the last 60 days there, we were already correcting them and they were going to be corrected for the future,” Drew said. “You want to make that turnaround, and you want to make things right. It was a lot of work in a lot of areas. Not to really get a chance to turn it all, that was really disappointing.”
Drew was eager to get back into coaching immediately, but like Kennedy, he decided some time away might be helpful. And like Kennedy, he ended up doing television work with ESPN. Drew said that aside from picking up different ways to run practice or shootaround, calling games on TV refocused him and made him realize why he got into coaching in the first place.
“From a personal perspective, doing TV helped me get back to my main goal of mentoring your men and helping them achieve their dreams,” Drew said. “Sometimes you get caught up in wins and losses.”
Entering last spring, Drew made a list of jobs he would be interested in should any of them open. Grand Canyon was on that list. When the school fired Dan Majerle and reached out to Drew, he and his wife flew out to Arizona and were blown away by the campus, the facilities and the rapid growth of the program.
It will be the third program Drew has taken over — and the third program that has a pretty solid foundation from which to build. At Valparaiso, he succeeded his father, Homer, who went to seven NCAA tournaments. At Vanderbilt, he took over for Kevin Stallings, who also made seven NCAA tournament appearances. And while Grand Canyon hasn’t been there yet, Majerle won 20-plus games four straight seasons before 2019-20.
“Every program I’ve coached, we’ve gone to the NCAA tournament. Being able to get GC to their first NCAA tournament, I’m motivated more for that than for other reasons,” Drew said. “We would’ve won at Vanderbilt; we just didn’t get enough time. I want GC to be the third school I’ve led to the NCAA tournament.”
For the first 22 years of his coaching career, Rob Jeter took many of his coaching principles from one person: Bo Ryan. Jeter played under the legendary Wisconsin coach at Wisconsin-Platteville, then coached under him at multiple spots before becoming the Milwaukee head coach in 2005. Jeter went to two NCAA tournaments in his 11 seasons with the Panthers before being fired in 2016.
Through those entire 11 years, though, most of what Jeter taught was influenced by Ryan.
“I knew one style,” Jeter said. “I played for Bo Ryan; I coached with Bo Ryan. I ran my practices, I ran my program how he ran his. My personality was different, but we did the exact same drills. Preseason and postseason, the same exact way. That’s what I knew.”
As a result, Jeter’s coaching style has likely seen the biggest potential change between stints as a Division I head coach of anyone on this list. After leaving Milwaukee, he worked under Marvin Menzies at UNLV for two seasons before heading to the Big Ten and coaching under Richard Pitino at Minnesota for two seasons. From the Bo Ryan school of thinking to two coaches from the Rick Pitino coaching tree.
“It opened my eyes to different things. We’re all doing the same things, just differently. I learned a lot from both of them,” Jeter said.
“I really loved [Menzies’] approach. Every day it was all about being happy and making sure guys felt good. That was perfect for me coming out of 11 years as a head coach. Then it was the Pitino way. Richard was all about skill work and development. Wisconsin is more about team development; Pitino is more of an emphasis on individual development. To me, it was a blessing. I had a chance to see different things.”
Western Illinois is a logical fit for Jeter. He is from Chicago, about 250 miles away from WIU’s Macomb campus, and his mother and brother still live in the Windy City. He has recruited the area at his previous stops and has familiarity with Chicago, St. Louis and the junior colleges in the region.
While winning is the ultimate goal, Jeter’s time as an assistant moved something else onto his list of priorities at Western Illinois: developing a staff of coaches who will be able to succeed on their own one day.
“This time around, it’s not just developing a team, but developing really good head coaches, do my part in trying to help,” Jeter said. “Let’s just get it done. It’s a different way of looking at it now. That time away was really good for me, I thought it was therapeutic, a good refresher; it changed my perspective. It made me really understand the value of my guys, the value of your staff. Make sure you have good people.”
Todd Lickliter is in a different position than the five other coaches in this piece. He isn’t technically taking over Evansville for the 2020-21 season; he was in charge for the final 13 games last season, after the school fired Walter McCarty midway through the campaign.
But Lickliter didn’t win a game during that time as head coach, so it’s still something of a fresh start.
“What we need to do is gauge progress, because we weren’t seeing it in the win column,” Lickliter said. “But by most standards, we were making progress. We were able to lay some foundations coming in at that time. I think it’s going to serve us well as we continue to develop the program.”
Lickliter has the biggest gap of the six coaches since the last time he was a head coach at the Division I level, as he hadn’t led a Division I program since getting fired at Iowa back in 2010. He also might have the most winding path back to this level, spending three seasons at NAIA school Marian University and three seasons as a regional scout with the Boston Celtics. Mixed in there was a season as an assistant coach at Miami (Ohio) and a season as an assistant coach at Evansville under McCarty.
But in January, suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly, Lickliter was given the chance to run a Division I program again.
“You stay in the game because you love the game, you’re not ready to retire,” he said. “One of the things you learn is that there’s just so few of these opportunities. There’s so few that fit. If you want to stay in the game, you assess other opportunities because you love to do it … You learn. If we quit learning, it’s going to be a miserable time. I had all these opportunities to learn in a variety of situations.”
Before jumping to the Division I level in 1977, Evansville was one of the most storied Division II programs of all time. The Purple Aces won five national championships in a 12-year span. National titles might be out of reach now, but Lickliter’s hope is that some of the past success can be rekindled.
“Just for my piece of mind, I’d be very comfortable if this was my last stop, and I want to do it really well,” he said. “I’d like to have that piece of mind, that we restored [the history] at the University of Evansville. It would give me a sense of accomplishment.”