Sources say Richard Pitino is reportedly working out a deal to leave Minnesota, where he is about to be fired, to become the Lobo men’s basketball coach.
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Despite a flurry of Internet rumors this week, University of New Mexico deputy athletic director David Williams told Enchantment Sports that the school had not offered anyone the Lobo men’s basketball job — nor had any in-person interviews.
Williams said the process has heated up since the Lobos officially ended their embarrassing season with a first-round loss to Fresno State on Wednesday in the Mountain West tournament, but athletic director Eddie Nuñez still has not determined a timeline for the hiring.
According to multiple sources, however, he could be close. One said, “I expect it to be down to two (candidates) this weekend.
And the Enchantment Sports suggestion of a Lobo mantra: ‘PIT–eeno!’ may come to fruition.
But not papa Pit-ino.
Richard Pitino looks to be on his way out at Minnesota, and if he get axed — or makes a deal to resign — he is the leading candidate at UNM.
Multiple sources say it’s already a done deal and he is working out the details with Minnesota, where he has had seven losing Big Ten seasons in his eight years at the school, and will become the Lobo coach.
But as of Friday morning, UNM had yet to conduct any face-to-face interviews. Williams said UNM would probably conduct “less than five.”
In a nearly one-hour interview with Enchantment Sports late on Thursday night, Williams said the speculation has “been from mob syndrome the past 48 hours.
“One person says it on the Internet, and there’s a little bit of ‘It must be true, let’s all jump on board and jump on that bandwagon.’ And then it’s either ‘We love him’ or ‘We hate him.’
‘”But not only have we not offered the job to anybody, we have not even met with anyone face-to-face yet. So anybody who thinks the job has been offered and there’s only one candidate, they are simply off base.”
On Saturday morning, however, several coaches told Enchantment Sports that Richard Pitino has agreed to the job and will be hired.
A Minnesota paper reported that Pitino would be interviewed by UNM on Saturday.
But the news is eerily similar to 2017, when UNM offered the job to Albuquerque native James Borrego, who accepted. But his date of arrival couldn’t be agreed upon, because he was still an assistant coach in the NBA.
The parties went their separate ways and then-UNM athletic director Paul Krebs eventually turned to Paul Weir.
On Feb. 27, the day after Enchantment Sports broke the news that UNM and fourth-year Lobo coach Weir officially parted ways, Nunez held a Zoom conference to address questions about the search. Nuñez, a former player at the University of Florida, said he did not plan to answer further questions until the search was complete.
He said he was not using a search committee, and would be assisted in the process by members on his staff who had college basketball coaching experience, which includes Williams, a former college basketball coach for 12 years.
Nuñez said he would not address specific questions about whether any coach was or was not a candidate, and Williams spoke to Enchantment Sports under the same condition.
“It can be a little frustrating, because we’ve kept this close to the vest,” Williams said. “There are very, very, very few people who really know the pool of candidates.”
The secrecy, however, doesn’t mean that Williams and Nuñez aren’t doing their due diligence.
Far from it.
Williams spoke in depth about what a huge hiring this will be for the university, and they are “not leaving any stone unturned.”
This season, the Lobos finished 6-16, alone in last place in the 11-team Mountain West conference at 2-15 this season and had wins over such powerhouse programs like Our Lady of the Lake, Le Tourneau and Dixie State.
Williams “the interest in any men’s basketball coaching position is incredible. but at the University of New Mexico — with a program and tradition of fan base we have — there is quite a bit more interest in this job.”
Lobo fans, of course, are interested in candidate names — and ultimately a coach.
Many names have surfaced, including Tim Miles (formerly at Nebraska and Colorado State) and current coaches Dennis Gates (Cleveland State), Shantay Legans (Eastern Washington), Kyle Keller (Stephen F. Austin) and Rod Barnes (Cal State Bakersfield).
And, of course, South Carolina coach Frank Martin, a long-time friend of Nuñez who is on the hot seat with the Gamecocks? But that would command some big-time bucks and some unforeseen circumstances.
How legitimate the others are remains to be seen. One thing, however, that’s been pretty certain from the start, is there are likely names that have yet to surface but could be in the interview mix this weekend.
“The real candidates don’t want their names out there,” Williams said. “They don’t want their name in the paper. The ones that do, the ones who have tried to get their names in the paper, those aren’t the ones we’re considering.”
Thus eliminating Kenny Thomas, Brandon Mason and Michael Cooper yet again.
After all, pushing your name as a candidate never works out, right?
At least, it doesn’t work out well in these parts.
Remember Lobo fan sites, boosters and cheerleaders (literally) staging “We Want Noodles” rallies in 2013, and then-UNM athletic director Krebs obliging?
“We’ve seen it, all these rumors the last 48 hours, all these rumors everywhere,” Williams said. “One thing that has reinforced for us, is the need for the person to have media savvy and know how to deal with a fan base.
“In this town, for the good and bad, there’s a great deal of interest in this program
and if you’re not media savvy, this town will eat you alive.”
See: Gary Colson, Fran Fraschilla, Ritchie McKay, Craig “Noodles” Neal, Paul Weir, Bob King (his last three years), Steve Alford (his first three years) and Dave Bliss (depending on who he was greasing – media, boosters, players — each year).
Other key information Williams told Enchantment Sports about the search:
“We’re using the same process as we used with football (for the hiring of Danny Gonzales in December of 2019).
“We start with a very small group of people we have in mind, then do research of every team in the country. Take calls, talk to agents, friends in business. This list goes from small to quite large, and when that list is quite large, it narrows back down on criteria and continued research. That’s what we’re doing at that point.
“It’s a small list again, and some of those people who were on the original list are still on it because they checked all the boxes.”
What are the biggest boxes?
“You have to have someone with significant head coaching experience, because as an assistant coach, you won’t get exposed with the media pressure you’re going to face here. A head coach has been through that type of ringer, so we have a much better idea of what to expect from that person than an assistant coach.
“That’s not to say an assistant coach can’t do it, but it’s not a known fact for us.
“We are hoping to meet with coaches with head coaching experience. That’s really important to us.”
Nuñez said mentors are big. Apparently, that’s not only who mentored a would-be Lobo coach, but who he mentored.
“We certainly look at the programs that have been successful, and where they’ve come from,” Williams said. “Obviously, (Utah State coach) Craig Smith was the coach at South Dakota when I was there (with the athletics administration), I was part of the group that hired Craig Smith at South Dakota. We interviewed two other coaches who are currently Mountain West coaches, I don’t want to say who they are.
“You have to look at all those things; Where did Craig Smith come from? Where did (Colorado State coach) Niko (Medved) come from? Who came from smaller programs? Some are rehashes, some came back from UCLA (Alford) to the (league). We look at all those things.
Where Smith and Medved came from is well known to many in the region, which is a major reason Miles could be the leading candidate to this point.
Both Smith and Medved, who have combined to win the last three MW coach of the year honors, were assistants under Miles at the same time at Colorado State. But is he being used as a smokescreen?
That seemed like a lot of information to be putting out about Smith and Medved?
Multiple sources have said Miles is scheduled to be interviewed, but Richard Pitino is the Lobos’ top target.
Pitino’s name has come up, but but had stayed in the background until Saturday. As of today, he is still coaching at Minnesota — but probably on his way out. One source told Enchantment Sports that Billy Donovan, Nuñez’s coach at Florida, recommended Rick Pitino’s son to Nuñez.
Richard went 18-14 in his first and only season as head coach at Florida International — hence the Florida/Donovan tie — before being hired at Minnesota in 2013.
He is 140-122 overall at Minnesota, but has had only one winning season in the Big Ten (2016-17) when the Golden Gophers were 11-7 in the league and made the NCAA Tournament.
Minnesota also went to the NCAA Tournament in 2019 with a 22-14 mark, but they were 9-11 in the Big Ten. His overall league record is 54-96 in his eight seasons at the school and was 6-14 this season.
If he’s fired, his buyout is reportedly $1.75 million. A negotiation with a severance pay for less money and a resignation is likely being discussed.
Missing Boxes of Money
While filling UNM’s boxes of head coaching experience, media savvy, integrity, rebuilding ability, player and coach development are one thing, filling an incoming coach’s pockets with the right price is another.
And Williams said what the school can — and can’t — pay is a big part of the search. He said the Lobos are looking to pay a coach around the same as Weir, which was $775,000 a year.
“We literally went down every Division I conference, went down the standings. ‘O.K., who is the best team in the Summit League? Who is the coach? Should he be considered at all?,” Williams said.
” ‘Now let’s go to the MAC, then go to the Southern, now let’s go to the SEC. Now to coaches who are out and want to get back in. Now let’s go through junior college coaches, now to assistant coaches at Power 5 schools who maybe have a head coaching background.’
“Every one of those people we looked into. Some got eliminated because of salary. They make more now than we can pay. (Loyola-Chicago head coach) Porter Moser makes $1.2 or $1.5 million. He’s not a guy who’s on our list.
“We have a software program that tells us the salary of every single coach, and what their buyout is. We compare their record to their buyout and their success, their trends
, what type of a program did they take over?
“A person who takes over a 30-win program, then wins 25 games; that’s not that impressive.
On the other end, Williams said an overall career record could be misleading if a coach has been a rebuilder?
“We have to have someone who has at least rebuilt a program before,” he said. “Rebuilding has changed from what it was just a couple years ago, because of transfer portal program, APR and all the academic things we have to think about. But it’s definitely a rebuilding program.
“Which players are going to be back, which ones are going to buy into whatever the new philosophy is going to be? I don’t think it will be a long process, but it’s not a secret we are low on skill players. One of the most important basic skills of the game is to be able to shoot.
We’re gonna need some skill.”
Williams said money has changed dramatically in the days since UNM thought it was going to hire Rob Evans away from Arizona State in 2002, then hired Ritichie McKay.
“Back then, UNM could probably pay around what an ASU could pay,” Williams said. “But it has changed so much with autonomy, the Power Five and TV money.
“Every school in the Big Ten now gets $50 million from their TV package. The Mountain West gets $4 million. Our entire budget is $32 mullion, so what Paul Weir was making is a pretty big chunk of change for us.”
Looking for the Open Shot
During his Zoom conference, Nuñez said he would not use a search committee for the hire. Williams reiterated how big of a factor it is that he and Nuñez have deep connections in the sport.
“One of the advantages of Eddie playing and me having coached 12 years of college basketball, is all the people we know,” Williams said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to hire somebody that one of us knows, but it means that we can get educated opinions on those people.
“Eddie can call (LSU Hall of Fame coach) Dale Brown and get an opinion on the people we’re considering. That’s really valuable to have that kind of relationship with basketball people in the business. But it’s never a perfect progress, or every hiring would work.”
Williams said that regardless of the hire, there will be some fans who are excited and others who will express doubts.
But he asks just one thing.
“You know what, you’re a Lobo fan,” he said. “You’re passionate. Whoever it is, give them a chance. Whoever this person is, let them prove it to you.
“If he proves not to be the person or is the person in a couple of years, then jump off the train or jump on based on what he does at New Mexico – but not on your perception of who you think he is now.”
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio and has been honored nationally for investigative reporting. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.