When Norwood Teague pulled the plug on the Tubby Smith era, the then AD promised more exciting times and a rise up the Big Ten standings for the once-proud Minnesota Gopher program. His answer to the malaise? The hottest name in mid-major coaching — Richard Pitino.
Instead, the Gophers are in year three of the Pitino era and things have gone from mediocre to pathetic.
We don’t use that last word lightly, but there is a harsh reality that Gophers fans must confront, and that is the fact that their team is exactly that — pathetic.
The latest indication of that came on Thursday, as the Northwestern Wildcats drubbed Pitino’s Gophers 82-58 at Welsh-Ryan arena. Minnesota now stands at 0-11 in conference play, tying for the worst start to Big Ten play since the 1922-23 season.
All of that after losing by 25 points to the same Wildcats at Williams Arena just about a month ago. The Gophers also were swept by Northwestern for first time since 2006 and were handed their worst back-to-back losses to the Wildcats in series history.
Getting drubbed once, that happens to the best of teams (especially in the crazy 2015-16 season). However, what the Gophers put on the floor was a team flat on energy, short on production and without any answers.
“You can say that without a doubt,” said forward Jordan Murphy, who led the Gophers with 14 points. “We didn’t play with enough energy. It’s back to the drawing board.”
It was a deadly combination for a team Pitino somehow believed was good enough to turn the corner.
“We had been playing well,” Pitino said. “We had been fighting. Tonight we didn’t. We took a step back today.”
There was also this:
Pitino: That was not the team that I was proud to coach for the past 3 weeks, that was the most disconnected we've been. #Gophers
— Nadine Babu (@NadineBabu) February 5, 2016
Playing well? He must have been referring to the last five games. After getting worked by Northwestern and Nebraska in back-to-back games, Minnesota bounced back and were in the next five games. It even included a 5-point overtime loss to Illinois, a 4-point loss to No. 21 Purdue and a 6-point loss to Indiana.
Considering the depths the program has sunk to in year three, not all that bad. However, therein lies the problem — high expectations have been met with apathy.
This is all coming after Pitino entered year three of his tenure in Dinkytown with a brand new contract extension and a raise. How that happened based on the first two years is beyond us, but it happened just before Teague was forced out of his job too — so there may be a clue to the answer.
In year three of a new coaching tenure, teams need to be trending upwards and that’s especially the truth after Minnesota controversially let go of Tubby Smith.
It’s equally hard not to look at what Smith did in his tenure at Minnesota, where he won 20 or more games in five of his six seasons and got the NCAA tournament three times. He was even let go after advancing beyond the first day of the NCAA tournament for the first time in his time at Minnesota.
When you consider that Pitino came in as the hot hand with a great style and flashy personality and Minnesota demanded more than just getting to the tournament, Pitino has been nothing but a failure.
Sure he won an NIT title, but that’s become almost a death-blow more than an actual accomplishment as of late. Baylor, Minnesota and Stanford have combined to win the last four NIT championships and where exactly are all of those programs right now?
Pitino followed up his first season (25-13, 8-10 in B1G), by going completely backwards. Since that 2013-14 season, Pitino is a combined 24-32 overall and just 6-23 in Big Ten play. Not exactly upping the level of championship play that was promised by Teague upon his hire.
Then again, shouldn’t we have all seen this coming from a coach with just one season on the job? Even that season was mediocre, leading Florida International to an 18-14 overall record and an 11-9 record in Sun Belt play.
What did Teague exactly see in Pitino other than his last name and a younger and more energetic figurehead for the program?
Recruiting hasn’t exactly been amazing, and after Tubby’s players have left so have the wins. That’s not a coincidence, that’s a troubling pattern.
Pitino has a buyout north of $1 million if leaves Minnesota prior to April 30, 2017. Something tells us he’s not going to have to worry about exercising that option.
That’s especially the case with Minnesota off to a new era in athletic administration and with Pitino’s team struggling at historic levels.
Expectations were raised with his hire, and while that’s not his problem, it is the goal he needs to meet and that goal certainly hasn’t been met.
It all adds up to a recipe that suggests Pitino is on borrowed tim in Minneapolis.