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Rick Pitino should be back in big time. Programs should be fighting to hire him | Opinion

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Welcome back to the big time, Rick Pitino. 

I guess we can’t say it officially — yet. Your Iona Gaels were only eliminated by Connecticut a little while ago from the NCAA men’s tournament, so give it a few days before you make your next move just to make everything look kosher. 

But we know. We all know. You’re ready to be back on the other end of one of these 4-13 matchups, at a program that can carry you back to the Final Four one more time before your career is over. 

And you know what? It’s a little crazy that your best option might be St. John’s. 

Nothing against the Johnnies. It’s a nice program. The Big Apple, Madison Square Garden, all that. Rekindling the days of Lou Carnesecca in the 1980s would be a fitting coda to a remarkable run that has taken you to to glory (and sometimes controversy) at Boston University, Providence, Kentucky and Louisville with a couple less successful NBA stops in between.

Just think of it: Pitino back in the Garden after all these years. What could be better than that for college basketball?

But if that’s the way it plays out in the next several days, with Pitino making his triumphant and long-awaited return to the Big East, a lot administrators around college basketball should have to answer one question. 

How did you let arguably the greatest coaching mind in the history of the sport get away? 

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And yes, we’re looking at you, Georgetown. Or you, Florida. Or even you, Massachusetts, which surely would have been better off bringing back one of its most famous alums at some point rather than losing a whole bunch of games for the last six years. 

Heck, we could be talking about any school with an opening that cares about basketball. I wrote a column back in 2019 imploring UCLA to bring Pitino out of coaching purgatory in Greece. It’s turned out fine for the Bruins under Mick Cronin, but here’s the deal with Pitino: He’s as sure a thing as there is in college basketball.

Pitino might be 70 years old now, but as long as he’s healthy you know exactly what you’re getting from him. No matter what, he’s going to win. 

Just look at what he did at Iona. Over three seasons in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, he won 40 of 49 conference games and won the league’s automatic tournament bid twice. Sure, Iona hit its ceiling Friday against against UConn, losing 87-63.

But that first half? Whew, that was a Pitino special: Running, pressing, shooting 3-pointers from all over the gym and forcing a much more talented UConn team to play a whole lot faster than it wanted to for 20 minutPitino said at halftime he was proud of his team for grabbing a 39-37 lead, probably because he knew it wasn’t going to last. Eventually, UConn’s size and determination kicked in and snuffed out any chance of an upset. 

What it showed, though, was a glimpse of what we remember about Pitino’s teams and the possibilities that are still out there for him at a big-time program where he can recruit top players. This isn’t particularly complicated. You hire Pitino, you win. 

There’s no doubt you’re potentially going to get some bad stuff, too, which is why so many schools have been afraid to give him a chance. 

No need to re-litigate what he knew about the prostitute scandal at Louisville or the payments to recruit Brian Bowen’s father that were uncovered by the FBI and ultimately led to his downfall. We all know what happened, and we also know that the NCAA has never pinned any of it on him directly. 

After Friday’s game, Pitino said he didn’t know what the future would hold but emphasized that the Louisville mess was no longer relevant from an NCAA standpoint.

“I was totally exonerated,” he said.

Whether you believe him or not, you don’t hire Pitino to fashion your program as a bastion of purity and ethics. But at a certain point after his separation from Louisville, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for schools to treat him like he had just stumbled out of a nuclear reactor. 

In a sport that has embraced Bruce Pearl, Bill Self, Sean Miller and other whose programs ran afoul of rules, how can anyone say there’s no room for Pitino at the highest level?

Whether it’s St. John’s or someone else, there’s undoubtedly going to be a reward for making that determination. And for others like Georgetown, which is reportedly not interested in Pitino, there’s going to be a reckoning when he has his next program in the top 10 relatively quickly.

Of all the jobs available this year, Georgetown is the one with the most potential to win a national championship. The school cares about basketball, has great facilities and is located in the middle of the one of the most talent-rich areas of the country. 

But its president, John DeGioia, is an influential member of the NCAA Board of Governors. The transgressions in Pitino’s past likely resonate more with him than the average university president. And so Georgetown seems poised to pass on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to immediately resuscitate its program by hiring one of the best to ever do it. 

That could prove to be another decade-long mistake, because this year, someone is going make the leap and bring Pitino back to the big stage. 

At this stage of the game, with the NCAA as weak as ever and Pitino motivated for one final push, there’s not much risk. But the potential rewards are almost infinite.

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