It’s been a couple of weeks since the U of M faithful and others have put Gopher Men’s Coach Richard Pitino on notice, calling for his job. One local PWM (primarily White media) three Sundays ago, and again this past Sunday, listed almost a dozen names to succeed Pitino, who was hired in 2013.
“I don’t block out the noise, but I understand it,” Pitino told me a couple of weeks ago. “I really don’t get offended by [such talk]. I try not to take it personal.”
WCCO’s Henry Lake’s nightly show of late has been a call-in for Gopher fans to vent their frustration with Gopher men’s hoops, which is in sad shape. Many saw the 2019-20 squad as an NCAA team.
“No disrespect to this year’s version…, but I didn’t see it from the start of the season…of them being an NCAA tournament-bound team,” Lake told us. “I say that as a media member and Gopher fan.”
Since starting this beat in the 1980s, we have seen Minnesota win two NIT titles, a Big Ten championship, and a Final Four trip, all under Clem Haskins. In the 21 post-Haskins years and four coaches later, we’ve seen only six NCAA appearances and a 2014 NIT championship. The long and short is that Minnesota has been at best an occasional contender, even during the Haskins years.
The Gophers have virtually been leap year contenders but never a national power. Other than to the Gopher following that blindly sees them otherwise, they simply aren’t relevant in today’s college basketball world. They haven’t been relevant since Haskins, whose teams during his tenure acquired a tough, blue-collar identity the Gophers haven’t had since.
Another sad fact is that the program should be consistently contending for conference and national titles since Minnesota is the only Big Ten school with no other Division I program to compete and recruit against. The historical inability to recruit local and outstate players may be largely related to a conscious or unconscious arrogance stemming from the Gophers being the only hoops game in town, and so anyone born and raised in this state is duty-bound to play for the Maroon and Gold.
A basketball program is doomed to failure if it can’t regularly attract most of its in-state players and has a harder time getting blue-chip prospects to sign. “He [Pitino] misfired on guys,” Lake said.
But simply calling for a coaching change is a bandage fix. Instead, a new recruiting philosophy is needed. Minnesota’s current narrowly focused approach, looking elsewhere first before coming back to local players as a fallback, is a policy that hasn’t worked thus far.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.