In February 2003, on a Friday afternoon between games at Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay, Mick Cronin sat on a bus with his Murray State players behind him, his assistant coaches beside him and a couple of journalists along for the ride.
Cronin’s cell phone rang. He answered without hesitation, probably because he knew the caller was important.
“What godforsaken town are you in now?” Rick Pitino asked, a gentle mocking of his former assistant as Cronin climbed Division I’s coaching ladder.
MORE: Before Cronin hire, UCLA boosters wanted Pitino
Pitino, 67, has been to the top of that ladder — literally — twice in a head coaching career than began all the way back in 1978 when he was hired, at age 25, to coach the Boston University Terriers. He was a prodigy then, his talent so obvious it was as if he wore a neon sign that said “Future Hall of Famer.”
Now, that current Hall of Famer will be the next head coach at Iona College.
Pitino stumbled, in a sense, on that second trip to the top. The Louisville program he was running, which claimed the NCAA championship in 2013, became the center of a scandal through the publication of the book “Breaking Cardinal Rules,” which detailed stripper parties in the team’s residence hall that were allegedly funded by a basketball staff member. That cost U of L what had been its third national title banner.
And more problems became apparent in 2017, when one of Pitino’s assistant coaches was caught on a federal wiretap in which another man discussed an apparel company making future payments to a Louisville recruit. Not long after that was revealed in an FBI complaint, Pitino lost his job.
Now, Pitino is willing to begin at what represents Division I’s bottom rung.
DeCOURCY: Hofstra, Mihalich have only pride this March
Back when the question was relevant, in the immediate aftermath of his dismissal from Louisville, I would respond to those asking if Pitino would coach again in college by suggesting that it likely would occur only if he were willing to work again in a bus league.
And so he has.
If you needed a March upset, at least you’ve got this.
Iona is a member of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. The regular-season champion of this season’s MAAC, Siena, was expected to be a No. 16 seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, according to Sporting News’ Ryan Fagan. Siena is located in Albany, N.Y., which is a two-hour bus trip from the Iona campus. Quinnipiac is an hour up the road in Connecticut. The only genuinely long trip is across the entire state of New York to Buffalo, the location of Canisius College.
Pitino has demonstrated he wants to coach badly — badly enough to move all the way to Greece and lead the Panathinaikos basketball club in the Greek Basket League and Euroleague. That he was willing to go so far afield to remain in the business, when he is far beyond doing it for the money, is more than surprising.
Even though it offers the opportunity to live again in midtown Manhattan, if he wishes, it seemed highly unlikely he would be willing to coach in one of the college game’s most charming and balanced — but least glamorous — leagues, so well captured in a beautiful midseason column by New York Post sportswriter Mike Vaccaro.
The MAAC itself has declined a bit in recent years. In 1990, it was home to a national player of the year, Lionel Simmons, and a La Salle Explorers team that went 30-2, earned a No. 5 NCAA Tournament seed and produced two other NBA players beyond Simmons.
In 2012, Iona earned an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and appeared in the First Four opposite BYU, and under coach Tim Cluess the Gaels won the MAAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament the past four seasons and five times overall.
Cluess missed the 2019-20 season, though, with an undisclosed illness and resigned earlier this week to serve as a consultant to the program and focus on his recovery.
Iona is located in New Rochelle, N.Y., one of the American cities most challenged by the emergence of the coronavirus. There may be some who criticize Iona for insensitivity or poor optics, but this is a moment when Iona most needs prospective students to understand the college has a future.
Now, that future will include one of the most gifted coaches ever to wear a pair of designer loafers in front of a college bench. One wonders if he will dress down a bit.