February 26, 2024

AFTER SAYING A Sunday morning mass on Long Island, the Rev. Brian J. Shanley drove to Winged Foot Golf Club in Westchester County, New York, to meet with Rick Pitino. It was March, and Shanley, president of St. John’s University, needed to find a men’s basketball coach. He could almost predict the reactions he’d get if word of the meeting got out.

Yes, the days of pearl-clutching over college basketball ethics largely were over, but Pitino’s history transcended the reality of the new world of NIL money. Shanley had asked his staff at St. John’s to compile a list of candidates for the job, and Pitino, a Hall of Famer who was coaching nearly 20 miles away at Iona, initially wasn’t on it.

Curiosity put Shanley on the road that day to Pitino’s house. That, and Mike Tranghese.

Tranghese is a former Big East commissioner with whom St. John’s consulted in its search. Tranghese had helped Shanley before, when the priest was president at Providence and the school hired a relative unknown in Ed Cooley in 2011. One of the best things about being a consultant rather than an employee, Tranghese says, is that you can say whatever you want.

He was blunt when he talked to Shanley.

“I said, ‘Father, I have no doubt if you hire the right one from this group that this person can have some success,'” Tranghese recalled. “‘But your fan base has been waiting 32 years to win. They’re beaten down, they’ve been operating in despair for so long.

“‘The only person to dig you out of that and give you a great basketball coach and win is Rick. We need to just talk about Rick and forget about everybody else.'”

Tranghese told the priest that he believed Pitino was a good man.

Banished from basketball in 2017, Pitino was fired by Louisville amid an FBI investigation into allegations of bribery in college basketball. The Independent Accountability Resolution Process, an outside enforcement arm of the NCAA, eventually exonerated Pitino in late 2022, but he came with other baggage. Louisville had to vacate its 2013 national title after the NCAA found one of Pitino’s former staffers had arranged for stripteases and sex acts for players and prospects.

Pitino was in his mid-60s at the time of his dismissal, but retirement was never really an option. Basketball was his identity, and nothing — not a yacht nor a house on a golf course — could replicate the feeling of being on the sideline, or more important, in an empty gym during one of his player development sessions.

Greece and the EuroLeague eventually got him back in the game, and Iona got him back home to New York. St. John’s, and the Big East, put him back in the big time. Back in his element.

Shanley went to Winged Foot in March because he felt as if he needed to speak with him as a person, not a coach. The resume — two national championships, 834 college wins — was never in question. Shanley wanted to take a measure of who Pitino was now, and what he’d learned from what Shanley calls coaching purgatory.

After lunch and three hours of conversation, he had his new coach.

“I believe in second chances, and letting people evolve,” Shanley says. “And I think Rick right now is at a point in his life where he’s not the same person that he was 10, 15, 20 years ago. The guy I talked to … there’s no red flags here for me.

“I think some people were a little surprised, if not even a little shocked — why would a Catholic school hire somebody that had been through stuff? But from where I sit, judge not, lest ye be judged.”

PURGATORY, IN CATHOLICISM, is a way station of punishment where the dead go to be cleansed of their sins. The next stop after purgatory, it is believed, is heaven. Shanley obviously didn’t mean Pitino had been through purgatory in a literal sense, otherwise a long list of Catholics would sign up for the lot of a millionaire ex-basketball coach set adrift.

But to Pitino, that time did not lack its share of challenges. The man who became the only coach to lead three different schools to the Final Four (including Providence in 1987) was suddenly toxic in college basketball circles. It was awkward in NBA circles, too. In 2018, he told ESPN that he’d hired agent Drew Rosenhaus in the hopes of landing an NBA job — he previously coached the Boston Celtics and had a successful run with the New York Knicks. But Pitino remained unemployed.

The man who’d spent six or seven hours on a basketball court daily for more than four decades had an empty calendar, and didn’t know what to do with it.

“I tried to get a commentating job on ESPN, and they said, ‘No, we’re all booked,’ and they just didn’t want me on the air,” Pitino says. “I worked for them before; I did the NBA draft. I did ESPN games when Kentucky was on probation.”

(An ESPN spokesman said the company continues to have an amicable relationship with Pitino.)

“So your friends and your family obviously never cancel [you], but the public, from a media standpoint and trying to get work, cancels,” Pitino says. “And then the biggest thing about it is you never get your day in court because the NCAA drags it out so long. I mean, they dragged it out for five years before we got an opportunity to hear the case.”

He read books and sought inspiration, anything to wash away the negative thoughts. It took him about six months before he began to see things differently. He thought about others going through far worse things, and made a point to stop feeling sorry for himself.

He went to NBA games and visited former players who had become coaches, and he spoke to college teams about motivation. He stayed up until 1 or 2 in the morning to watch West Coast NBA games, then got frustrated when he started waking up later and pushing back his workouts.

Born in New York City and raised on Long Island, Pitino captained his basketball team at St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay. He signed his scholarship papers to play basketball at UMass on the floor of Madison Square Garden. He spent 42 years of his life coaching at Hawaii, Syracuse, Boston University, the New York Knicks, Providence, then back to the Knicks as a head coach, Kentucky, the Celtics and Louisville.

He was always the one being sought; he wasn’t used to seeking jobs. In that quiet time post-Louisville, Pitino devoted more time to his wife, Joanne, his children and grandchildren. But the life he had before, the only one he knew, kept tugging at him.

“It’s his passion,” says Phoenix Suns coach Frank Vogel, who was a graduate assistant for Pitino at Kentucky. “This is where he belongs. He belongs in big-time college basketball, and he’s one of the best to ever do it.”

UNDER PITINO’S LEADERSHIP at Louisville, the men’s basketball program got caught up in two high-profile scandals. In June 2017, the NCAA ruled that one of Pitino’s former staffers committed “serious violations by arranging striptease dances and sex acts for prospects, student-athletes and others” from 2010 to 2014, many of which were reported to have occurred in players’ dorm rooms. The NCAA found that Pitino committed a Level I violation for failing to monitor his program and issued a suspension for the first five conference games of the 2017-18 season. Pitino has maintained that he was unaware of any of the staffer’s actions.

Then in September 2017, a federal criminal case resulting from an FBI investigation into bribery in college basketball included allegations that representatives from Adidas worked with Louisville staffers to funnel money to recruits, including $100,000 to the family of Brian Bowen II. Louisville coaches were not among those charged in the federal case. A subsequent NCAA investigation would level punishments against two former assistant coaches, but not Pitino.

Pitino says he was so bent on proving he had done nothing wrong that he took a lie-detector test and passed it. He also hired the former FBI agent who administered the test, Carl Christiansen, as a private investigator in 2017 in the hopes of clearing his name.

Brad Augustine, a former AAU coach in Florida who was among those arrested in the 2017 FBI investigation into bribery in college basketball, was famously quoted in the criminal complaint saying that “No one swings a bigger d—” than Pitino.

During an FBI sting operation in a Las Vegas hotel penthouse in July 2017, Augustine was one of a number of coaches lured to a meeting of investors — actually undercover FBI agents — looking for coaches who could deliver basketball recruits to a prospective management agency run by Christian Dawkins, a former associate of Augustine’s who would later be convicted and sent to prison for his role in the bribery scandal. Augustine — speaking unknowingly to an undercover FBI agent — was trying to articulate the influence Pitino had with the shoe company.

The FBI eventually dropped charges against Augustine, who hasn’t coached AAU basketball since. But he would never have ruled out a Pitino comeback.

“It’s the story of sports, right?” Augustine says. “Like, something terrible happens and then there’s the comeback. I’m living in Orlando and I’m wildly into golf. I remember when Tiger Woods’ career was ‘over.’ Tiger is the most beloved person on earth in the golf world.

“This is the story of sports … If you can win, people will forgive you and you can come back.”

Augustine says there was a gray area in college basketball in which high-profile coaches would hire assistants, and there was a don’t-ask-don’t-tell mentality in recruiting. The assistants would do whatever it took to get a recruit, he says, and the head coaches didn’t want to know about it.

“But it is common knowledge within the very small community that is grassroots basketball,” Augustine says, “that there’s certain coaches who, they’re hands off, but they have assistants who, you know, in the past that was their function.”

Augustine believes that there will be no NCAA in five years. He also believes that Pitino eventually will build a powerhouse at St. John’s.

“Personally, I’m a big Rick Pitino fan. I think he’s the greatest living college basketball coach. I mean, if anyone’s ever actually gone and sat and watched a Rick Pitino practice … From a coaching standpoint, that’s who I would send my son to play for.”

AS PITINO ENTERED his second year of exile in 2018, his withdrawals were severe. He enjoyed the extended time with his family, friends and old players. But he had to get back in the game.

Two weeks before Christmas in December 2018, Chris Wallace, now the Houston Rockets‘ scouting director, called Pitino and told him about a job opening with Panathinaikos, a EuroLeague team based in Athens, Greece. Wallace worked as Pitino’s general manager with the Boston Celtics, and he told Pitino that Panathinaikos wanted to hire him.

Pitino planned to spend time with 12 of his grandchildren in Florida. He told Wallace he wasn’t interested, but for a different reason. He knew nothing about the EuroLeague, nor Panathinaikos. A week went by, and an agent who knew the club’s owner reached out and told Pitino about the team and the league.

Joanne told him he should go.

“I was just doing nothing except doing nothing,” Pitino says.

He told Joanne, “OK, let’s pack up and go.”

“And my wife said to me, ‘Oh no, I’m not going. You’re going.’

“And I left on Christmas Eve.”

Panathinaikos had gotten off to a rocky start in the 2018-19 season, which spans about nine months. Pitino went directly from the airport to the basketball offices.

Georgios Vovoras, the club’s interim head coach, slid into an assistant coaching job when Pitino arrived. Enthralled with Pitino’s coaching, Vovoras started a diary because he didn’t want to forget the lessons Pitino taught him.

The team was supposed to play one of the top squads in the EuroLeague and was a heavy underdog. The short version of that first game is that Panathinaikos won, and the team took to Pitino quickly.

“He lives and dies basketball,” says former Panathinaikos captain Nick Calathes, a veteran of the EuroLeague. “As a player you can’t not want that.”

Pitino studied his new roster on the flight to Athens and imbued an immediate sense of confidence. Panathinaikos, Calathes says, had a 5% chance of making the playoffs before Pitino arrived. He led the team to the playoffs that first season — despite having to learn a new set of rules, despite struggling through language barriers — far away from home and nearly two years removed from coaching.

Even after all his research, that first game, he didn’t fully know the players’ names, and, according to Calathes, didn’t know what positions they played. He tried to sub a center in at point guard. But the big guy probably would have played the position anyway just to please Pitino.

In his first meeting, Pitino told the team he initially wasn’t sure he if he wanted to be there, but he’d made a decision, and he was determined to make the most of their time together.

“He had more passion [than] young coaches who start now, let’s say,” says Manos Papadopoulos, Panathinaikos’ former president. “He has everything in his life. More money. But he was working like crazy and actually he’s trying to teach this to the players.

“I remember very well his words. He said, ‘One day, you’ll wake up in the morning and you’ll know you’ll never do this job again. You’ll stop play[ing]. So enjoy the time.'”

IN LATE-WINTER 2020, Seamus Carey flew to Madrid to meet Pitino. Carey is president at Iona, a private Catholic university with an enrollment of about 3,600 students in New Rochelle, New York.

Carey previously had served as president of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and admired Pitino’s work. He’s also a native New Yorker and grew up watching Pitino in basketball clinics. Carey had recently been hired at Iona, and his basketball coach, Tim Cluess, had resigned because of health reasons. Wanting to make a splash for his next hire, Carey flew 4,000 miles to woo Pitino, whose team had played Real Madrid.

At this point, Pitino figured if he was ever going to get back to coaching in the United States, it probably would be in the NBA. Pitino told Carey that he had followed the NCAA rules and was awaiting his day in court.

“He interrupted me,” Pitino says, “and said, ‘Look, I grew up with you. I went to a camp where you were giving lectures and teaching. I went to all your clinics. So you don’t have to explain anything.'”

Hiring Pitino was a bold move for Iona, but it sparked no giant uproar in New Rochelle.

By March 12, New Rochelle had become the epicenter for the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, and then-governor Andrew Cuomo ordered a containment zone where an outbreak apparently started, which was one mile from Iona’s campus. On March 14, with the National Guard deployed to New Rochelle, Iona named Pitino its men’s basketball coach.

Iona did not make Carey available for an interview for this story. A person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, wondered whether the pandemic might have tempered the reaction to Pitino’s hire.

“With all the past scandals,” the source says, “if COVID’s not going on, is there a protest, do people rebel, does he get the job? … He was able to start signing all these kids … and they couldn’t [go to New Rochelle] to see how small the gym is.

“Iona took the bullets, then this guy coached a couple of years and nobody’s bringing up the Louisville scandals. And maybe we’re just distracted as a society. We’re wearing masks.”

IN MARCH 2020 the pandemic had ended a 29-2 season for Berrick JeanLouis and his teammates at Florida SouthWestern State, denying JeanLouis the chance to showcase his skills in the postseason. JeanLouis, a 6-foot-4 wing, had planned to commit to Wichita State. Then Pitino called. JeanLouis didn’t even know Pitino was back in basketball.

As Pitino spoke, JeanLouis could hear his coach whispering in the background, “You have to go there.”

Pitino offered JeanLouis a scholarship to play for Iona, and called him for the next three days.

“He’s on his yacht,” JeanLouis says, “and I called him and told him I was going to commit. He said, ‘Oh, wow, I’m going to pop a bottle. You just made my day.'”

JeanLouis didn’t know anything about Iona, or that he’d wind up playing in a gym that was smaller than his junior college arena. He knew a little about Pitino from watching Louisville as a kid, remembering him as “crazy on the sidelines,” but that his teams played “super-hard on defense” — one of JeanLouis’ specialties.

JeanLouis contracted COVID-19 shortly after he arrived in New Rochelle, and the virus gripped the team for much of the season, constantly forcing quarantines and cancelled games. Pitino, JeanLouis says, was so eager to play that he’d run the few players he had through 3-on-3 drills for two hours.

“It was terrible,” JeanLouis says. “Sometimes we would wish we would’ve gotten COVID again. Please test positive. He’s killing us. [The practices were] devastating, but they helped.”

JeanLouis says Pitino made sure players dined in the nicest restaurants on road trips.

“Five stars,” he says. “We had so many steaks we got spoiled, got disappointed in steaks.

“He wanted us to experience the best of the best every time. He wanted to make us feel like we’re in Louisville. On the same level as Louisville.”

The Gaels finished 12-6, won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament and earned an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. They lost in the first round to Alabama.

Jeff Van Gundy, a senior consultant for the Celtics, used to watch Pitino coach Iona games from his computer during the pandemic. Pitino gave Van Gundy his first job in college basketball as a graduate assistant at Providence, and Van Gundy remembers Pitino working him so hard that he didn’t have time to go to class.

When he watched Iona’s first season under Pitino, it brought back shades of seasons long ago.

“It was no different if he was coaching the New York Knicks in a full house or at Rupp Arena with the high-level lottery picks he had, or with Iona,” Van Gundy says. “To me, you could never tell the difference. The specifics of how they play may change year to year on the strength of the team, but how hard they play never changes.”

One of the first things Pitino asks his new players is, “Do you love basketball?” If you don’t love it, JeanLouis says, you’re not going to last with Pitino.

The Gaels went 25-8 in Pitino’s second season at Iona but were upset in the MAAC quarterfinals. JeanLouis, playing with an injury, contemplated entering the transfer portal. But Pitino told him he thought he could improve his senior season and help the team, so JeanLouis stayed.

“He encouraged me that whole year and I played well,” he says.

The Gaels made it back to the NCAA tournament, holding their own in the first half against Connecticut, the eventual 2023 NCAA champion. The Huskies pulled away in the second half, and JeanLouis’ college career ended.

After the game, as Pitino wrapped up his talk with the team in the locker room, JeanLouis says, an alert popped on their phones: A Big East insider was speculating that St. John’s planned to hire Rick Pitino.

PITINO INSISTS THAT the move to St. John’s was not about getting back to the big time. But ultimately, it was.

He says he loved coaching at Iona, but that there were things about Iona he didn’t enjoy. The fact that the MAAC was a one-bid conference when March rolled around every year was one of them. There were other limitations, too.

After that meeting with Shanley in March, Pitino thought about what he’d leave behind at Iona. He had a great team coming back, he says, and didn’t want to leave them. He called Steve Masiello, one of his assistants, to talk about it. Masiello told him that those players were leaving.

Pitino was incredulous. He told Masiello that his players would never leave him.

“Oh, they’re going to leave,” Pitino recalls Masiello telling him. “Unless you come up with some money with NIL.”

Pitino says Iona didn’t have name, image and likeness (NIL) funds at the time. And building an NIL cubby at St. John’s has taken a lot of work. Pitino says he spent three or four nights a week this summer going out and meeting possible donors. He’s not sure how sustainable it all is.

“We hired a general manager of NIL, and he runs it,” Pitino says. “But I don’t know how he’s going to do it because it’s not a tax write off for people. Not yet.”

Pitino says he made sure that all of his players received some NIL funds. Shanley declined to disclose any NIL numbers, but says that it has “definitely, definitely increased.”

Pitino already has landed four-star recruits Brady Dunlap and Simeon Wilcher, who are on the roster now, and Jaiden Glover (2024).

For his first team at St. John’s, Pitino relied heavily on the transfer portal, and brought three of his former Iona players to Queens. Daniss Jenkins, a graduate transfer who led the MAAC in assists, was the first Gael to commit to Pitino. And it’s been quite the whirlwind in the past eight months, going from playing in the 2,578-seat Hynes Athletic Center in New Rochelle to playing in Madison Square Garden in early November against Michigan. (The 4-2 Red Storm lost 89-73).

Celebrities randomly show up to St. John’s games. Last week, Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant was in the crowd at Carnesecca Arena in Queens. Jenkins thought that was pretty cool. He knows what a successful season at St. John’s would mean to basketball fans in New York.

St. John’s has T-shirts and messaging that says, “We Are New York’s Team,” but for years, it hadn’t given the city much to buzz about. St. John’s hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2000 and hasn’t come near to replicating any sustained success since Lou Carnesecca retired more than three decades ago.

“I wouldn’t say there’s more pressure now,” Jenkins says. “Some will say [there is] because of the way that coach Pitino talks to the media. But that’s just because he believes in us.

“I just think this is a great opportunity for all of us. There’s only one way to go through it. Have fun and embrace it. He’s where he wants to be.”

WHY DOES MIKE Tranghese think Rick Pitino is a good man?

Tranghese says he can only go by the time he’s spent with him, both in basketball and socially. That’s how he judges him.

In the early days of Tranghese’s career, he was the right-hand man for Dave Gavitt, the founder of the Big East. Pitino was a young coach on the cusp of leading Providence to the NCAA tournament in 1987 when his 6-month-old son, Daniel, died of a congenital ailment.

Pitino decided to coach in that first-round game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Gavitt gave Tranghese one charge: Go with Pitino. Don’t leave him. So Tranghese rode with the team to Birmingham, Alabama, and stuck near Pitino as the Friars kept winning, making a surprise run to the Final Four. There wasn’t a lot to be said during that time, but Tranghese says they developed a bond.

“Rick and Joanne are both Catholic, and I think it was faith [that pulled them through],” Tranghese says. “I don’t know how else you get through it without faith.”

Longtime Louisville women’s basketball coach Jeff Walz also vouches for him.

Pitino was a big supporter of women’s athletics when he was at Louisville, Walz says, and would sometimes sit behind their bench during games and come to the locker room afterward to congratulate them.

When Louisville opened a downtown arena in 2010, Walz says, Pitino insisted that the women be the first team to play in the arena. The women opened it by playing Pat Summitt’s Tennessee Volunteers. He says that season ticket sales for his team significantly jumped after that game.

“It meant a ton to our program,” he says. “Not every men’s coach would do that.”

Walz says Pitino “served his time” and deserved this chance.

“It’s not like somebody just called him from a Power Five league and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a job for you,'” Walz says. “He worked his way right back up into it.”


ONE TIME AT Iona, Pitino told his team that he wanted to die on the basketball court. Preferably, it would be during a game.

JeanLouis says he remembers the story word for word. Pitino told the team that he wanted to be down by 5 at halftime, JeanLouis says, in the championship game of the NCAA tournament. He wants to die and have his team come back and win the game.

“I don’t know if he was joking or not,” JeanLouis says, laughing. “I was like, ‘This man is crazy.'”

Pitino says the story was meant to be “tongue and cheek.” If anyone could decide how they’d die, he says, they’d want to go peacefully probably, while they’re in bed sleeping.

“Obviously,” Pitino says, “we don’t have a choice.”

Still, Pitino does his share of introspection. During team introductions at Madison Square Garden last month, he looked up at the banners and thought about his days with the Knicks. He thought about his teenaged self signing his college scholarship papers. His mind raced between the present and the past, and it brought him to the verge of tears.

He says he’s not leaving New York again. Not to take another other job. He wasn’t leaving Iona, either. But who would’ve thought, during Pitino’s long days of exile, that another school would ever give him a chance?

“You know what happens in New York,” he says. “You’ll get a lot of stories until you lose. Then you’re washed up. I’ve seen that with a lot of NFL quarterbacks in all walks of life in sports here. You’re only as good as what you do that night. And New York is an impatient place to work. I know.”

ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne and researchers Dana Lee and Alonzo Olmedo contributed to this report.

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