Updated March 20, 2021 - 8:05 pm
UNLV basketball fans have always viewed Rick Pitino as a means by which the program might return to national prominence.
Which, of course, it would.
Problem: It’s not happening with Pitino. Time for folks to finally turn that page.
The Rebels are in search of another head coach, the departure of T.J. Otzelberger to Iowa State made official Thursday. Like several times over the years as UNLV continued to fill the lead chair, Pitino is by far the most popular wish among scarlet and gray faithful.
Mine too. Not in the same manner. The only thing I cheer for are fast games. Deadline and all.
But in a strictly basketball sense, UNLV couldn’t do better than Pitino. It’s the same now as two years ago, when athletic director Desiree-Reed Francois wouldn’t travel down the Pitino road and hired Otzelberger.
It’s the same as when Pitino turned down the UNLV job in 2001, when a deal was thought done and then someone (former athletic director Charlie Cavagnaro) — allegedly! — dropped Pitino’s wife off at an airport curbside and sped away.
Her flight was delayed and she was stranded for more than 12 hours.
Full disclosure: I’ve followed Pitino’s career closer than I have any coach. Have read all his books. Watched as many of his games as possible at the NBA and college level.
Creeper alert: I might have also watched zoom replays of Pitino’s press conferences at Iona this season to hear the Hall of Famer talk basketball. O.K., so I watched a lot of them.
Ticket sales? He would eventually pack the Thomas & Mack.
Big-time recruits? Come on.
Winning at a high level? Unquestionably.
But that’s just part of the story. The only one fans care about.
Pitino also carries serious baggage, fired at Louisville as part of a wide-reaching FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting. The NCAA has also yet to legislate the case, meaning infractions could still be aimed at Pitino.
There was also a case regarding sex parties with prostitutes for recruits and players in on-campus dorms. The result: Louisville had its 2013 national championship banner stripped.
This is the part Reed-Francois has had to consider when vetting the idea of Pitino. It has obviously convinced her not to pursue the only coach to have led three schools to the Final Four.
Pitino has vigorously denied any knowledge in either infractions case, but that just reinforces a longstanding truth when it comes to head coaches whose programs are embroiled in controversy: You either knew or didn’t, and it’s worse if you didn’t.
Because, in that case, who’s really in control?
Reed-Francois should have one goal — identify who she believes is best to lead the program in all facets. Both on and off the court and within the sphere of NCAA compliance.
She should also be given the autonomy to do so. That’s part of the job description. No micromanaging from the president’s office or anywhere else. Make suggestions and then let her do her job, because if hires in football and basketball prove mistakes over time, it’s then the athletic director who will be searching for work.
That’s part of the gig when you sign up.
I know what’s coming. Name a Division I basketball coach who hasn’t bent even the slightest of rules. Exactly right. But there are levels to such impropriety. Some of those names being floated as candidates for the UNLV job now have had NCAA compliance issues or troubling legal cases. So we will certainly watch where that goes.
There is also the Pitino side of things. Nothing directly suggests the 68-year-old would even be interested in UNLV. Rumors and second-hand guesses don’t count here.
His buyout at Iona has been reported in the $10 million range. Good for the Gaels. Bad for any non-Power 5 program pursuing him, even if it could afford such a number.
Pitino’s son, Richard, was also just named head coach at New Mexico. Is it really plausible his father would want to be in the same conference, recruiting against him and playing each other at least two times a year?
Maybe just listen to Rick Pitino’s own words:
This was him earlier in the week as Iona prepared for its NCAA Tournament game against No. 2 seed Alabama, a game the 15th-seeded Gaels lost 68-55 on Saturday after leading in the second half:
“I’m not going anywhere. If I go anywhere, it’s retirement, and I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon. You could come to me with the greatest job on earth, and I would not consider it. I came home (to New York) to coach and end my career at a small, Catholic school. I’m looking forward to building a special program at Iona.”
This just in: UNLV isn’t the greatest job on earth. Not even the best in the Mountain West.
Sure, coaches say such things all the time and then bolt for another job. I don’t think so this time with Pitino.
And in the case of the Rebels, it doesn’t matter.
Time to turn that page for good.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.
Randy Bennett: The longtime Saint Mary’s coach has guided the Gaels to seven NCAA Tournament appearances during his 20 years with the program.
Jason Kidd: The NBA legend is an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the Rebels are interested in his candidacy.
Shantay Legans: The 39-year-old has emerged at Eastern Washington as one of the best young coaches in college basketball, having guided the Eagles to an NCAA Tournament berth this season and the Big Sky regular-season title last season.
Tony Stubblefield: The 50-year-old has more than 25 years of experience as a college assistant, including 11 at Oregon, where he’s helped the Ducks recruit some of the best players in the country.
Reggie Theus: UNLV would be a destination job for the former Rebels and NBA star, who has head coaching experience with the Sacramento Kings, New Mexico State and Cal State-Northridge.
Mike Woodson: The 62-year old had a 315-365 record as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks, but he reached the playoffs five times and has extensive experience as an assistant.
— Sam Gordon