Richard Pitino is said to be the frontrunner for the Lobo men’s basketball coaching job. But contract ties with Minnesota could be delaying the hiring.
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
This week, maybe as soon as today (March 15), Richard Pitino will likely be out of a college basketball head coaching job at the University of Minnesota.
And this week, maybe as soon as today, the University of New Mexico Lobos will have likely filled a college head coaching job.
Does one have anything to do with the other?
It certainly appears so.
But does that mean Pitino will be the head men’s basketball coach of both programs during the same week?
Ah, that’s the million-dollar — or maybe $800,000 — question.
Maybe more, maybe less.
“It’s a numbers game,” one source told Enchantment Sports. “There are a lot of negotiations going on right now.”
It all looks to be coming down to the ties that bind — while untying others.
Pitino, son of legendary coach Rick Pitino, is one of three confirmed candidates to interview for the Lobo job. The position opened when Paul Weir was fired/resigned on Feb. 26.
Tim Miles, former coach at Colorado State and Nebraska, and Kyle Keller, current head coach at Stephen F. Austin were also interviewed by UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez and deputy AD David Williams.
Others have been rumored to be candidates for the job, but Enchantment Sports has not confirmed if any others have been interviewed.
Multiple sources said Pitino is the clear frontrunner because of personal ties, as long as he can undo financial ties with the Golden Gophers that allow him to fit into UNM’s cash-strapped budget.
Pitino, while speculated to be fired, has three years remaining on his contract at Minnesota at $2 million a year. He has a buyout that pays him $1.75 million if he’s fired by April 30.
If he stays with Minnesota, he’ll get a $400,000 retention bonus. But if Pitino resigns, he loses that amount and owes the school $500,000 for a buyout the other direction.
The contract also states that for Pitino to collect his buyout, he’s required to lessen the university’s payment obligations by trying to obtain comparable employment as soon as possible.
So it’s a cat-and-mouse game right now. A negotiation with a severance pay for less money and a resignation is likely being discussed.
On Sunday, Enchantment Sports received a copy of Pitino’s contract. You can view it on this link.
In an interview with Enchantment Sports on March 11, deputy AD Williams foreshadowed such a process.
Using South Carolina coach Frank Martin — who many speculated as a possible replacement for Weir because of his close ties with Nuñez — Williams talked about the process of a coach being in circumstances such as Pitino, without naming Pitino.
“We can’t pay (a coach) $2 million a year,” Williams said. “We’re (going to pay) what Paul (Weir) made ($775,000), which is in that $700,000-to-$800,000, which is a really good range for Mountain West basketball coaches.
“I’ll speak about coaches that are in a Frank Martin situation. Coaches that are in that situation (of being on the hot seat), they can go one of a couple of ways; If they get fired, and they’re getting severance as they are leaving, then they might become available.
“So if someone says, ‘Look, we’re going to fire you, and we’re going to pay your severance of $4.5 million dollars,’ now that person then becomes available. And that helps us. That’s what happened with (Steve) Alford did (when he was hired at Nevada).
“When Alford went there, he got a huge severance package from UCLA, and then Nevada ended up paying him less the first couple of years, because he’s making all this money from UCLA.”
Williams said the situation changes dramatically if a coach on the hot seat gets out of Dodge — or Columbia, S.C. , or Minneapolis — ahead of the posse.
“So (if) someone like Frank Martin breaks his contract on his own, then Frank has to pay a buyout to the school for leaving. Well there are times, when that AD will go to that coach, ‘I don’t approve of the way things are going, but look, I’m not going to fire you yet. But if you leave, I won’t make you pay your buyout.’ “
It’s basically the antithesis of You can’t fire me, I quit.
But Williams said it’s not as uncommon as one might think.
“That does happen in this world,” Williams said. “And that’s where, again, Eddie’s connections, and the connections we have, we know who those people are.
“Frank’s not one of them. Frank’s not going to get fired. If he leaves South Carolina it’s going to be a different Power 5 job that can afford his buyout. He’s not coming to New Mexico.”
Hot Name in a Hot Seat
Pitino has been on a scorching hot seat at Minnesota for the past two seasons, and might have had his job saved after the pandemic caused such chaos last year.
But after going 14-15 this season and 6-14 in the Big Ten — his seventh losing conference record in his eight years there as coach — only financial issues at the school, caused by COVID-19, look to be in the way of dismissal now.
Pitino is 141-123 with the Golden Gophers and 54-96 in the Big 10. He has one victory in two NCAA Tournament appearances and led Minnesota to the NIT title during his first season at the school (2013-14).
His record, incidentally, is 4-7against Miles, when the latter coached in the Big Ten for seven seasons at Nebraska. Miles was 116-144 with the Huskers and 52-76 in the Big Ten with one NCAA Tournament appearance and two NITs.
Pitino’s only other head coaching stint was one season at Florida International, where he went 18-14 and 11-9 in the Sun Belt Conference.
So, why is Pitino, according to multiple sources, the leading candidate for the UNM gig?
That last name certainly has a lot to do with it.
As does the guy who gave it to him.
Nuñez played college ball at the University of Florida under Billy Donovan — current head coach of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls — and later served as an assistant on Donovan’s staff at the school.
Donovan is a close friend and mentor of Nuñez, and also a longtime friend of Rick Pitino — his mentor and the guy who gave him his first college coaching job as an assistant at Kentucky (1989-94).
Donovan has long talked about his gratitude for Rick Pitino, and has been close to Richard Pitino since the latter was a toddler.
“I have a great picture at home of [4-year-old] Richard on Billy’s lap in my basement,” Rick Pitino told the Florida Times-Union in 2012, before Donovan’s Gators took on Pitino and Louisville for a berth in the Final Four. “Then, Richard had the great opportunity to work for him.
“I always tell my son ‘Richard, some day you’re going to be a Billy the Kid.’ “
Donovan also played for Rick Pitino at Providence, when the Friars got to the Final Four in 1987.
Donovan told ESPN.com “I feel bad. I wouldn’t be standing where I am today without Coach Pitino, the investment he made in my life. I think the values and things that he taught me … we’ve always remained very close, and I feel bad for all he’s dealing with and Louisville is dealing with right now.”
Louisville won the national championship under Rick Pitino in 2013, but the NCAA vacated that title in 2018 because of the scandal that rocked college basketball.
Pitino was ousted at Louisville in 2017, then sued the University of Louisville Athletic Association for $38.7 million and eventually settled out of court. He returned to college coaching in 2020 with Iona and led the Gales into this year’s NCAA Tournament by winning the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
But while this season will likely provide Rick Pitino offers to move back up to the a Power 5 school, it will likely move Richard Pitino back down to a mid-major.
Could that be to New Mexico?
Only ties will tell.
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.