Good News for Local Sports Fans
By Dan Murphy
Here’s some good news for all of us in
Westchester County who are sports fans going through withdrawals because all
games and all sports have been cancelled for the foreseeable future.
First was the news that Tom Brady was
leaving the Patriots to sign with the Tampa Bay Bucs. That was great news for
NY Jets fans like me who have had to endure 20 years of Brady and Pats Head Coach
Bill Bellichik beating us twice a year.
Another recently sports story that got
drowned out was that legendary college basketball coach Rick Pitino agreed to
coach Iona basketball, here in Westchester, and New Rochelle – currently in the
middle of the Coronavirus storm.
The decision by Iona to hire Pitino, who
was involved in investigations and scandals while coaching at Louisville –
resulting in his firing in 2017 and what he then called a “blackballing” from
college basketball, is being criticized by some. Others have wondered why
Pitino would choose a small college basketball program like Iona to come back
Sports Illustrated and reporter Pat Forde
wrote: “Rick Pitino coaching at Iona is like Pavarotti singing at a county fair
in Iowa. He is dramatically overqualified. If you can hire a coaching master at
a mid-major, low-budget school, why on earth wouldn’t you?”
It’s a great line, and it’s true, but if
you are a college basketball fan from Westchester you can’t help but be elated
that Pitino chose Iona to launch his comeback. WFAN sportscaster Mike Francesca
called Pitino’s hiring at Iona “a perfect fit,” based on Pitino’s ability to
turn around a college basketball program’s success by recruiting talented
players and by his ability to coach and inspire his players to greatness.
More than 30 years ago, Pitino performed
his first coaching miracle at Providence College, getting his team to a Final
Four in 1987. That was the first sign that Pitino could work wonders with a sub-talented
team, and his stint at Providence is a good comparison of hopefully what is to
come at Iona.
Pitino then coached the New York Knicks
for two years, 1987-89, before taking a job at the University of Kentucky – one
of the great basketball programs that had fallen on tough times. Pitino brought
Kentucky back to greatness, winning a national championship and three trips to
the Final Four.
Instead of staying at Kentucky, Pitino
took a huge payday to coach in the NBA for the Boston Celtics. The four years
in the NBA part two for Pitino didn’t work out, and he soon returned to college
basketball, as the coach at Louisville.
While Louisville had some success before
Pitino, he brought the team back to higher success, winning two national
championships and getting to three Final Fours. Pitino stayed at Louisville for
16 years, until three different scandals plagued his coaching career, with
accusation of sexual affairs and bribing players resulting in his firing in
2017 after the FBI launched an investigation into corruption and fraud charges
in all of college basketball.
Pitino admitted to Francesca: “Looking
back on it now, I deserved to be fired by Louisville. Was I innocent of any
wrongdoing? Yes I was, but I was the leader and I deserved to be fired.”
For the last three years, Pitino has been
coaching in Greece. “It was strange because I’ve sort of been blackballed out
of the business for two and a half years,” he said.
Last year, he was exonerated of all
charges and settled all lawsuits against Louisville and sneaker maker Adidas
for wrongfully terminating his contracts. That opened the door for a return to
college basketball, and Iona.
Pitino, who has been notorious for jumping
from one job to the next, said Iona will be his last coaching position. At age 67,
Pitino will return to what he loves best – developing young athletes. “That’s
where I belong,” he said. “I’m super excited about being at Iona. It will be my
last stop, and I hope we make it a glorious run.”
Last year, Iona had its worst men’s
basketball season in three decades, with 12 wins and 17 losses, due in part to
Coach Tim Clueless’ illness that kept him from the games. Prior to that, Iona
had always had a good basketball team and was always competing for its
conference championship and a trip to March Madness.
But Pitino’s arrival changes everything
for the team and its future. Yahoo Sports said Pitino’s arrival will mean “the
cash register will be ringing at Iona. Pitino’s arrival will mean bigger
crowds, exponentially more attention and television exposure.”
Even in the middle of the Coronavirus in
New Rochelle, season ticket requests have gone up for Iona’s home court, the
Hynes Athletic Center, which seats 2,578 fans.
But why Iona for Pitino?
Two possible reasons are Iona President
Seamus Carey, who has an existing friendship with Pitino from when both worked
at other colleges; and Robert V. LaPenta, the wealthy Iona alumni who recently
donated $17.5 million to the school for a new business school named in his
honor, and who is also friends with Pitino.
Before taking the job at Iona, Pitino had
several Westchester connections. His son lives in Harrison, and Pitino is a
member at Winged Foot County Club in Mamaroneck.
For those criticizing Iona for hiring a
coach with a scarlet letter on him for his past, others speak of the importance
for forgiveness, and a second chance in sports and in life.
And for those of us about to be in March
Madness withdrawal, the idea of Rick Pitino building a college basketball
program at Iona sounds great. It’s also good news for New Rochelle, and when
COVID-19 is over, it will give the city and our county something new to root