Rick Pitino is back in college basketball.
The former Louisville coach will be the next head coach at Iona, the school announced Saturday. Pitino replaces Tim Cluess, who said Friday he was stepping down after 10 years because of an undisclosed health issue that sidelined him the entire 2019-20 season.
Pitino hasn’t coached in college basketball since October 2017, when he was fired by Louisville after the Cardinals were connected to the FBI investigation into college basketball. He has spent the past two seasons coaching professionally in Greece.
Shortly after the hire was made official by Iona, ESPN conducted a phone interview with Pitino and Iona athletic director Matt Glovaski.
ESPN: How and when did Iona first contact you, and what were your initial conversations like?
Rick Pitino: There’s a relationship that goes before Iona, with the president of the school, Seamus Carey. He was the president of Transylvania — before Iona — in Lexington, Kentucky. He came to a few of my games, I left him tickets. I have a business partnership with [former Kentucky star] Jamal Mashburn and [longtime Pitino business partner] Rick Avare, and Avare was good friends with Seamus. When I left Louisville, Avare said, “Seamus is a big admirer of you as a coach and would be glad to call any colleges for you when you apply to some.” I really, really appreciated that so much. But I said I’m probably going to head overseas. Once he knew Tim was not coming back. First I spoke to Rick [Avare], he asked if I’d be interested, I said 100 percent. Then Seamus and I spoke on the telephone. Then I spoke to Matt on the phone.
Matt Glovaski: As soon as we heard from Coach Cluess about his ability to coach moving forward, we started looking at potential candidates. We started in the process, much like Rick just discussed. There was mutual interest. I was certainly really excited about the idea. I never had a chance to meet him before. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. And I’ve had the opportunity to work with [Seton Hall coach] Kevin Willard, who always spoke so highly of Pitino. With the legacy and tradition of Iona basketball, the potential would be there. We’re in an amazing area of New York, with terrific basketball established throughout our history. We thought there would be an opportunity.
ESPN: You’ve been linked to a number of different jobs the past couple of years. Were any of them real — and why Iona?
Pitino: People have reached out to me. I told them I had no interest. There was so many things outside of the lines that were important than between the lines. I’m so passionate about the game that I went halfway around the world to coach in Greece. I missed my family, no one was there. If I was going to coach in college basketball, it was going to fulfill my needs away from the lines. I always get the question, do I regret leaving Kentucky? That’s one of the premier jobs in college basketball, but I spent seven awesome years there. If I had any regrets, it would be leaving Providence College. I was there two years, I didn’t spend enough time there. It was just a ball and a dream and that’s all it was. Iona brings me back. Something that Dick Vitale said to me last week, he said, “Jim Valvano said the best years of his life were coaching at Iona.” I knew it was the right fit, it’s 30 minutes from my apartment in New York City, it’s 10 minutes from my son in Harrison, New York. It’s 10 minutes from a golf club I’ve belonged to, Winged Foot. It has a great tradition, the coach before me did an unbelievable job. So many small Catholic schools [have had success]. Gonzaga, Dayton. Iona has a chance to build on what Tim Cluess has done.
ESPN: Are you going to rely on Tim Cluess, and how involved will he be within the athletic department and program?
Pitino: I’m certainly going to lean on him any chance I get. He’s not only done a stellar job, but he knows the league. Obviously one of my former players, Steve Masiello, is at Manhattan, and I’ve spoken to his team on many occasions, followed his team. But I’m going to lean on [Cluess] whenever I can.
ESPN: Cluess had a lot of success going the transfer and junior college route to build his teams. That’s not something you did a lot at Louisville. Are you going to recruit mostly high schoolers?
Pitino: The program is not where Tim left it. It needs to be boosted up quite a bit. It probably needs six recruits. The first year, probably quite a few fifth-year transfers. I’m not a big junior college recruiter, not into the juco ranks. We do need a lot of immediate help. I just got texts, from over 35 [former Pitino] players, saying this is one of the happiest days [they’ve] had all year. That made me feel good. Mark Pope of BYU, Travis Ford, Lorenzo Wade, Taquan Dean, all these guys have been texting me. Those are relationships built over four years, a long period of time.
ESPN: How do you think you’ve changed as a coach since the last time you coached in college?
Pitino: I learned an awful lot going to the EuroLeague. It’s a different form of basketball. It’s the best offensive basketball played, [including] college and the NBA. The best offensive sets, the best ball movement, the best cuts backdoor, the best passing, the best shooting. They don’t have the defenses we have because the athleticism isn’t as powerful, but from a learning standpoint, I learned quite a bit. The coaching was fantastic. I’ve coached against Dean Smith, Frank McGuire — I put these guys on the same stage as all the great ones. I learned a great deal. Offensively, it’s made me a better basketball coach.
ESPN: What does this mean for your coaching of Panathinaikos and the Greek national team?
Pitino: I’m going to fulfill my commitments. We’re in sixth place fighting for a playoff spot. And I’m still going to coach the national team. [If the NBA season ends in time], I’m going to get the “Greek Freak” [Giannis Antetokounmpo] on my team.
ESPN: As part of the interview process, did the issues at Louisville come up and how were they answered?
Glovaski: We did a really thorough interview process. We talked to Rick on numerous occasions. At Iona, we have a zero tolerance policy of anything illegal. We were very clear on expectations for how we do things moving forward. I think we’re in the best possible position moving forward. It’s a terrific opportunity for the school.
ESPN: Do you have any reason to believe there will be any future issues with the NCAA related to your time at Louisville?
Pitino: I was exonerated totally under trial in New York. I was also suspended for five games, only five games, because the NCAA interviewed 80 people. I’ve written a book, everything in there is the truth. I’ve had my faults. Under the NCAA rules, I was hit with a failure to monitor members of my staff. I took ownership of that. I’ve been away from the game because of that. I met with the NCAA before I went back to Greece. I told them the honest truth about everything. I’m optimistic about the future. I’m just focused on Iona. I haven’t had an interview in all that time [three years since being dismissed at Louisville]. [I’m at Iona] because of my relationship with the president. If I had any regrets, it’s totally out of character with my leadership. I wish people would have contacted all the players from Boston University, Providence, the Knicks, Kentucky, Louisville, asked about my values off the court, academically and athletically. I wish they would’ve just contacted them. My greatest endorsement is from my players.
Glovaski: We talked to a lot of the families, people that were close with Rick. Got a sense of who Rick Pitino is as a coach, as a leader, what his core values are. We got a really good understanding of Coach Pitino and how he would fit in.
ESPN: If the NCAA comes down in a few months and hands Pitino a “show-cause” penalty, how would that be handled? And has that been discussed?
Glovaski: We have no reason to believe that would happen. Because we’ve had such a thorough interview process. For us, it’s about focusing on great research. Focusing on making sure we were on the same team, we were building moving forward. Rick’s values aligned with the goals and values for the college. He was the right leader at the right time in his life for this job.
ESPN: There’s going to be speculation that you could be trying to get back to a bigger job soon. Are you looking to get back to a power conference spot or are you trying to build something at Iona?
Pitino: I’ve coached Kentucky, Louisville, the Celtics, the Knicks. It wasn’t about being at the mountaintop again. I’m looking to climb the mountain and bring Iona to something special. Tim Cluess did a fabulous job, I want to carry on and do something special. I’m not looking to move on.
Glovaski: We spent a lot of time talking about what makes Iona special. Incredible history, tradition, the incredible foundation that Tim Cluess has built. Rick saw that as an incredible opportunity to continue to build. We both thought this was an amazing opportunity. Coach Pitino can take this institution to a new level. So many great things are happening on campus.
ESPN: Was there any pushback from any of the decision-makers at the college about hiring Pitino?
Glovaski: We involved a lot of important people into this process, it was a really thorough process. All the things that had happened, we have opportunities to build moving forward. Everyone was so excited when they heard about the genuine interest from Rick. People were really excited and saw this as an incredible opportunity.
Pitino: If it wasn’t for the president and Matt, I don’t think this comes about. It really had to take people to do, like I said, I wish people would’ve called my players, called Billy Donovan, Jeff Van Gundy. … They would’ve had a better sense of me off the court. Seamus Carey and Matt did that. I insisted that they do that. I said, “Let’s not go any further.” I’m so appreciative. Richard [Pitino, Rick’s son and the head coach at Minnesota] would say, nobody really cares [about your story]. They’re not interested anymore. Stop trying to tell the truth and go on with your life. He was right. But Seamus and Matt both alike were willing to do that.
ESPN: Will you schedule Minnesota anytime soon?
Pitino: Not that I know of. The last time my son and I played at the Naval Base, at the Army base, he barely shook my hand after the game. He gave me a blow-by.
ESPN: Happy to be back home?
Pitino: It’s the perfect way for me to end a long coaching career. It’s just the perfect ending for me. I couldn’t think of a more perfect ending. It matches the values I have away from the court. I’m super excited about it. If I could pick any school in the nation, proximity would be the No. 1 thing I look at. No. 2 would be values of the college. The way they speak about the place, it just made it a perfect fit. I’m so, so excited.