Iona hires Pitino after coach’s three-year NCAA exile

Rick Pitino, Panathinaiskos. (Photo by Sonia Canada/Getty Images)
Rick Pitino, Panathinaiskos. (Photo by Sonia Canada/Getty Images) /

Iona, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference team that had a down year and lost their head coach, has hired Naismith Hall of Fame basketball coach Rick Pitino.

On Saturday, Long Island native Rick Pitino was hired by Iona to be their new basketball coach. He has spent the last three collegiate seasons “exiled” after he was axed from the University of Louisville in regards to an escort scandal and the pay-to-play scheme that he was investigated for. A scandal Pitino still says he’s innocent in.

In the meantime, Pitino has not let his Hall of Fame coaching career garner any rust. The former New York Knicks head coach helped Panathinaikos B.C. of the Greek Basketball League win a title in his first season at the helm in 2019. Per Matt Norlander of CBS Sports, Pitino has told his players of Panathinaikos B.C. that he’s returning to college basketball but will finish out the Euroleague season if/when it resumes. (The league has been put on hold of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.)

The 67-year-old fills the immediate head coaching vacancy left by Tim Cluess, who stepped down from the program citing health reasons. For the last decade, Cluess coached the Gaels to a 211-125 record with four Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season championships and six NCAA Tournament appearances.

However, Jeff Goodman brings up a very valid point. Will Pitino have to serve a five-game suspension in MAAC conference play since he was suspended for the first five games of the American Athletic Conference in 2017-2018 for the dorm scandal. The suspension would likely be upheld since he was fired from Louisville before it could be served.

Pitino’s hiring immediately reinforces the Gaels commitment to maintaining a strong presence in the MAAC. He has a ringing endorsement from Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, per Forbes’ Adam Zagoria.

"“He’s an unbelievable coach and I’m glad he got a second chance,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, a longtime friend of Pitino’s, said by phone. “He’s the only coach that got fired in that whole thing and they probably did less than anybody else.”"

The hire doesn’t come without controversy, but Pitino is the right guy for the job. He’s always had a fondness for New York. New Rochelle is the perfect place for the iconic coach to spend the final years of his coaching career.

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Some controversy could actually be good for the program. It certainly puts Iona in the national spotlight and I wholeheartedly believe this could be used as a positive for recruiting purposes. Aside from playing a stone’s throw away from New York City, the Gaels have a penchant for winning, thus Cluess’ outstanding record with the program. Also, with the NBA’s one-and-done rule reportedly in the mix to be changed Pitino can go after players that want to spend four years and the college.

For Pitino doubters, his resume should speak for itself.

With a 770-271 win-loss record, which would count for 35th all-time had he not had a sizable chunk of wins vacated for the scandals, and two national championships.1996 at Kentucky and 2013 at Louisville (the latter vacated), Pitino is more than an X’s and O’s coach as I’ve previously written. He’s most recently produced NBA talents like Donovan Mitchell, Terry Rozier, and Montrezl Harrell. This could be the start of a beautiful pairing. Look at the positives, Gaels fans.

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What do you think about Rick Pitino’s return to college basketball? Let us know in the comments section below, or on social media.