MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague’s first big coaching search lasted all of nine days, a relatively short period of time for a decision on a job as high profile as the school’s men’s basketball coach.
To some around the program, and anxious fans who heard report after report of coaching candidates coming and going, it may have felt like a lot longer. In the end, Teague said he could never worry about the outside perception of how the process was unfolding.
In the end, Teague was most concerned about how it ended. And a week after making his first marquee hire, Teague said he couldn’t be happier to have landed Richard Pitino.
“You don’t worry too much about perception throughout the process,” Teague said on Thursday. “You want to just be sure you’re doing what you need to do and you’re implementing what you planned out from the start, and sometimes that just doesn’t happen overnight.”
After Tubby Smith became the first Golden Gophers coach to win a game in the NCAA tournament, Teague made the bold decision to fire him and look for someone to bring a new perspective to a program that he felt had hit a wall. He fired Smith on March 25, then embarked on a coaching search that included some pretty big names — Shaka Smart, Fred Hoiberg, Flip Saunders, to name a few — before landing on Pitino, whose name is perhaps the biggest in college basketball thanks to his Hall of Fame father Rick, but whose head coaching experience pales in comparison.
Teague was reluctant to discuss specifics of the search on Thursday, preferring to circle back to the point that Pitino was the “right fit” for the Gophers all along. He insisted that the 30-year-old who had just one season of head coaching experience at Florida International was always on his list, even though at the time it appeared that he was far down that list after Smart and Hoiberg both signed extensions to remain at their schools and others, including Saunders, reportedly turned them down.
“We talked to people who weren’t reported and people who were reported,” Teague said. “There were a lot of different things that came out. And I know the Flip thing is touchy, but Flip is going to always be a great supporter of the U. He’s a great guy and a great coach and he’s going to have a great future doing whatever he’s going to do with basketball.”
Talks with Saunders, a Minnesota alum and former Timberwolves coach, fell apart on Saturday, but Teague denied reports that it didn’t work out because he didn’t want Saunders to bring his son Ryan to the staff.
“That was not the case,” Teague said. “The way I approach a coach, whether it be (football coach) Jerry Kill or Richard Pitino, as it relates to their staff, they have the freedom to hire their staff but I’m always involved in consulting in that process. And I find that if I do that, it really works out very well. It’s just been my philosophy, and it’s something that I believe in, to give them the latitude yet be there to help and consult.”
If Pitino was on Teague’s list of candidates all along, it did take some time for the athletic director to focus his sights squarely on the young coach. Donovan, who helped sell Teague on Smart at Virginia Commonwealth, told The Associated Press that it wasn’t until early last week that Teague called him to ask him for ideas on “someone that is maybe not on the radar, someone who was young and hungry.”
Teague said he waited to talk to Donovan until the Gators were eliminated from the NCAA tournament. Donovan brought up Pitino’s name. Just a few days later, Pitino was hired as head coach.
“The way things progress, they speed up and they slow down depending on where you are with that person,” Teague said. “But after talking to Richard in detail, I was so excited I can’t tell you because I knew he was the guy. So things did progress pretty quickly. Who you talk to and why you talk to those people, there are all types of factors that go in there. It was just the right time to talk to Billy.”
Donovan also said Teague’s inquiry was open-ended and included a mention of Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield, who Donovan knew was close to taking the USC job. When asked if he brought up Pitino’s name before Donovan mentioned it, Teague said he could not remember how the conversation unfolded.
“When I called Billy, it’s more just to gauge his feeling of what he feels like is a good fit here,” Teague said. “I know he’s close to Richard, and again Richard was still on our list, and we talked about a variety of things as we always do. It’s a whirlwind nine days.”
Teague also said the school is getting close to announcing a new facilities plan that will include a basketball practice facility that he estimates will cost $15-30 million. He’s confident that the fundraising for the project, which languished for years under previous athletic director Joel Maturi, was within reach.
As for Pitino, he may be a little light on head coaching experience, but Donovan also told Teague that “if you don’t hire him now, you’re going to hear from him three, four, five years from now and say I had a chance to hire this guy.”
“That entered my mind at times,” Teague said. “I said this is a guy who’s a real talent, and we need to get him now. And I’m glad we did.”
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