FIU’s first one-and-done won’t be a player, but a coach.
After coaching FIU to its first winning record in 13 years and within a basket of the NCAA Tournament, men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino will move on to the University of Minnesota. The Big Ten school announced it will hire Pitino, 30, after one year of his first head coaching job.
Neither Pitino nor FIU athletic director Pete Garcia responded to repeated calls or text messages. Garcia will speak to the media at 10 a.m. Thursday.
Pitino will replace Tubby Smith, who was fired by Minnesota last week, the day after the University of Florida blew out Minnesota in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Coincidentally, at Smith’s previous job, the University of Kentucky, he followed Rick Pitino, Richard’s father who is now coaching the University of Louisville in the Final Four for the second consecutive year.
Though Minnesota resides in the tough Big Ten, the job presents less of a reconstruction job than Pitino encountered at FIU. The Panthers’ lone NCAA appearance occurred before most current players can remember. Actual home fan attendance numbered in the hundreds. Player classroom attendance made the fan base look devoted — the program’s Academic Progress Rate for 2010-11 was 833, a number so low that combined with the APR for 2011-12 (yet to be released) could lead to FIU being banned from any postseason play next season.
The APR and 26 wins through three seasons prompted the firing of Isiah Thomas, an act several players thought was handled so badly, they protested by walking out of last year’s athletic awards banquet. Only six players remained from last year’s team, and not all of them were on scholarship.
Despite all this and being hired with the main recruiting period long past, Pitino cobbled together a team and coached a high-pressure defense that finished eighth in the nation in steals. One of Pitino’s first recruits, junior college transfer Tymell Murphy, led the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game and shot .573 from the field, the latter number ranking 17th nationally.
But junior guard Malik Smith, a junior college transfer and team leader who ranked 16th in the nation averaging 3.0 three-pointers per game, posted on Instagram on Wednesday night, “Thanks to FIU for the opportunity to do something special and help turn a program around. With that being said, I’ll be asking for my release some time next week and taking my talents to a different university. Coach Pitino helped show me what hard work was and I’ll forever appreciate it. With him and the rest of my teammates the best in the future. Everything happens for a reason.”
FIU went 16-13 in the regular season. In the second game of the Sun Belt Conference tournament, the Panthers upset No. 1 seed Middle Tennessee State, which had a 17-game winning streak, to get to the final against Western Kentucky. Western Kentucky won 65-63 to get the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
Leaving at this point in his six-year contract, Pitino owes FIU one year’s salary, $250,000.