Pitino ‘in heaven’ at Iona, done with the ‘big-time’

  • College football reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2008.
  • Graduate of Northwestern University.

INDIANAPOLIS — After guiding Iona to the men’s NCAA tournament in his first season as coach, Rick Pitino has no plans to leave.

Pitino on Saturday said he wants “no part of the so-called big-time anymore,” as the Gaels’ season concluded with a 68-55 loss to No. 2 seed Alabama in the first round of the tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Iona, a No. 15 seed in the East Region, overcame a lengthy pause to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament under Pitino, who has made 22 NCAA tournament appearances with five different programs.

He returned to college basketball this season after coaching in the EuroLeague for Greek club Panathinaikos.

Pitino coached Louisville from 2001 to 2017, winning a national title and reaching three Final Fours and six Elite Eights. He was fired in October 2017 amid a federal investigation into fraud and corruption in college basketball. Pitino seemed to reference his departure Saturday, saying, “I’m not turned off by the big programs, I’m turned off about what happened to me.”

“It’s no longer about me trying to move up any ladders, make more money,” he added. “I’m at a great place in my life. I can coach six, seven more years, God willing, just try to make young men better, try to make the program reach heights it’s never reached. That’s all I have planned. It’s a great place to be. There’s some things that suck about being 68. The great thing about it is being at Iona, being able to teach with nobody bothering you, just make the players better.”

Prior to Louisville, Pitino spent eight seasons at Kentucky, winning a national title in 1996 and making three Final Fours and four Elite Eight appearances.

“I want to take a smaller school, like a Providence, like an Iona, a small school and try to make it big,” said Pitino, who made his first Final Four as Providence’s coach in 1987. “But I wanted no part of any of that other, I had enough of that. It turned me off, to be quite honest with you, in a lot of different areas. I now don’t have to look over my shoulder and see who I’m going to trust, who I’m not going to trust.

“I’m in heaven right now, and where I need to be.”

Pitino is looking forward to building more success at Iona, saying the team would be “much better” in his second season. He noted several young players and an improved schedule that he thinks could make the Gaels a contender for an at-large NCAA tournament berth in future years. Pitino listed future home games against Seton Hall and BYU at Madison Square Garden, and challenged his son, Richard, the new coach at New Mexico, to face “the mighty Gaels” next season.

“We just got to improve the program, take the next step,” he said. “We will take the next step. There’s no doubt in my mind that Iona is going to be a force to be reckoned with down the road.”

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