by Pete Janny, Sports and Managing Editor
Over the last three months, the college basketball world has entered uncharted waters thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. The offseason has felt like an eternity for the players and coaches, who have had to find new ways to train and recruit respectively. Sensing default sympathy from the NCAA, players have been transferring at will, with the hope that the governing body will give out waivers liberally, or at the very least allow these transfers immediate eligibility for the 2021-2022 campaign if the upcoming season does get cancelled.
In a year rampant with industry speculation and vagaries, including the infamous cancellation of March Madness, the next biggest development in college basketball this offseason resides in the MAAC: the hiring of Rick Pitino at Iona on March 14.
Four months after that shocking announcement, many are still trying to process the reality that one of the best and most controversial coaches in college basketball history will be roaming the sidelines in New Rochelle. Already a powerhouse in the MAAC conference, Iona will undeniably elevate their on-court product by bringing in Pitino and his wealth of success. However, the move also ignited a firestorm of criticism in protest of a man who had fallen from grace and honor in his final years at Louisville due to NCAA allegations.
“Rick is a Hall of Fame coach who has won at the highest levels and he is committed to leading our student-athletes and our program to national prominence,” Iona Athletic Director Matt Glovaski said after hiring Pitino. “He brings passion and energy and shares our desire to build a winning program that will make our community proud.”
After being fired by Louisville in 2017, Pitino opted for a “sabbatical” to Greece, where he coached Panathinaikos B.C. for two seasons. However, two years in an atmosphere where the fans smoked at games and the offensive sets starkly contrasted from the college game were more than enough for the outspoken Pitino.
After surreptitiously campaigning for the St. John’s gig a year earlier, the former Knicks coach rebounded by getting the Iona job, which seemingly provided him the only pathway back to a remote semblance of his old life. He’s no longer in his preferred position in the Big East or ACC. His willingness to join a mid-major precisely captures the demise of a man who is determined to save his legacy. Pitino has yet to even be formally introduced at Iona because of the coronavirus, adding an almost apocalyptic backdrop to his controversial arrival.
“I talked to him when he was in Greece several times and we communicate often enough for me to sense that he’s really excited to be back not only in college, but also in that region,” former coach Marvin Menzies, who previously worked with Pitino and Steve Masiello at Louisville, told the Quadrangle.
This marriage between legendary head coach and hungry mid major can be viewed as a volatile compromise that invests in the interests of both parties over the clear risks that come with it from Iona’s perspective. For Pitino, it’s his last chance to rehabilitate his image and to truly validate his coaching wizardry in a type of environment he has not been in since coaching Boston University from 1978-83. For Iona, it’s another checkpoint in their quest for long-term MAAC subjugation and national relevancy, coming off six NCAA tournament appearances over the past decade.
From Manhattan’s perspective, there will be no shortage of motivation going up against Pitino and Iona. The rivalry between both schools is intense and hostile under any circumstances, but bringing Pitino into the fold makes it a must-watch event for both fan bases. When they do meet next, the top storyline will be the extensive history between Pitino and Masiello, who seems at peace, and even somewhat amused, by the extra media attention that awaits them.
“Manhattan versus Iona has always been a great rivalry long before me and coach Pitino and long after us,” Masiello told the Quadrangle. “I think this adds a lot of spice to it. I think this adds a lot of storylines to it that make it fun and interesting so I think we will have fun with it.”
The relationship between both coaches spans over 30 years. It all started during Pitino’s tenure with the Knicks in the late 80s when Masiello served as a ball boy for the team. For Masiello, that experience provided a grand introduction to the institution of the game and the basketball royalty of the Pitino family. This early connection between coach and ball boy planted the seeds for a more personal and professional relationship between the two by the time Masiello arrived at Kentucky as a player for Pitino. In their one year together in Lexington before Pitino left to coach the Boston Celtics, the Wildcats won the 1996 National Championship, further enhancing the legend of the itinerant coach.
The mutual respect they had for one another later led to Masiello joining Pitino’s staff at Louisville in 2005, where the young coach honed his craft for six years. Under the auspices of Pitino, Masiello emerged as a promising head coaching candidate and was hired by Manhattan in 2011 to become the 24th head coach in the history of the men’s basketball program. Masiello was already a familiar face in Riverdale, having previously worked as an assistant under former Manhattan head coach Bobby Gonzalez from 2001-2005 helping lead the Jaspers to two MAAC Tournament Championships. The selection of Masiello to the helm reaped early rewards, with the Jaspers capturing back-to-back MAAC Tournament Championships in 2014 and 2015. Simply put, Masiello became yet another success story in a long list of them from the Pitino coaching tree.
It was in 2014 when the Masiello and Pitino connection first became a public talking point. On Selection Sunday, the committee pinned the 13-seeded Jaspers up against the four-seeded, defending champions Louisville Cardinals. Given their allegiance to one another, neither Masiello or Pitino wanted any part of the sentimental, albeit awkward tilt. As most protégés do, Masiello employs strategies and schemes that were invented by his mentor Pitino, in addition to his own unique philosophies. This overlap in philosophy made game planning and predicting the outcome that much harder. It was these elements of unpredictability and — ironically — familiarity that turned off both coaches to the matchup.
“All coaches take from their coaching mentors once they get their opportunities,” Menzies said. “But I have noticed that Steve has made tweaks for certain philosophical things that have made them his own.”
The Jaspers made things interesting and seemed to have the characteristics of a Cinderella team, but the Cardinals prevailed in the end with Pitino getting the last laugh against his friend in a 71-64 win. All in all, the result was still an encouraging sign for Masiello, who inherited a six-win program just a few years earlier and was evidently changing the culture in Riverdale.
“He [Pitino] is responsible for where I am in my basketball career and I pay him all the homage in the world and without him I don’t know where I would be,” Masiello told reporters before that tournament game in 2014.
Menzies can relate to the pendulum of emotions both coaches probably felt throughout that memorable game having faced another of his mentors, Steve Fisher, in the NCAA tournament.
“It was always tough for the mentor because every game the mentee of his is coaching he is pulling for that guy,” said Menzies, who is best known for his stints as head coach at New Mexico State and UNLV. “It makes it emotionally a tough deal. I remember playing coach [Steve] Fisher, who brought me into division one college basketball, and we lost to them in the tournament [in 2014] in the first round. Steve obviously had a great battle with Louisville in the first round. Those games are typically going to be wars on the floor. Your players want to get it done for you so there’s always some extra dynamics going on that make it not a typical game.”
A lot has changed in the lives of both men since that last meeting in 2014. After facing his own bout of adversity and scrutiny at the height of his career, Masiello became more humble and more appreciative of his job at Manhattan. Pitino’s own redemption tour has been underway since he left Louisville in 2017 and it received a big boost with him being hired by Iona. However, the ultimate test for Pitino will be how he conducts himself when experiencing the inevitable pitfalls that come with elevating a mid-major program above its traditional standards. It will require patience and fortitude from a coach who has a history of NCAA scandals involving strippers and bribes from Adidas. And while they may not have been his ideas, his inability to prevent them made him equally as guilty in the public eye.
“Deep down they knew I was innocent with that whole FBI thing,” Pitino told Lesley Visser of CBS Sports in a 2019 interview. “They basically fired me for other reasons that went on in that dormitory. There’s not a coach in the world that would jeopardize their future because bringing strippers into the dorm is not going to get you a recruit. It’s only going to get you in trouble… Now, am I the leader? Yes. Do I have to take responsibility for anything that goes on? Yes. I can’t sit here and say I should have known because if I could have known I would have stopped it in 10 seconds.”
Despite what the critics think, those who know Pitino best are happy to see him get another shot to lead and develop student-athletes just like old times. And if there’s anything to take away from Iona’s lifeline to Pitino, it’s that the jury is still out on the hall of fame coach and his legacy: a man who is a villain to some and a hero to others.
“He was by far one of the best mentors in division one basketball when it comes to preparing assistant coaches to be head coaches,” Menzies said. “He was very influential for me getting my first job at New Mexico State.”
Masiello has always been very vocal about his respect for Pitino, who he thinks will attract more attention to the MAAC as the head coach at Iona.
“I’m just happy for him that he’s back on the sidelines in college where he is one of the best to do it,” Masiello said. “It makes our league and conference more visible.”
Something about that thrilling game in 2014 suggested that the Masiello-Pitino saga would eventually resume. Six years later, they are forced adversaries once again in the basketball hub of New York City. Pitino and Masiello each represent a hurdle for the other to get back to the NCAA tournament, where both have given us memories. As much as they respect one another, the next time the Jaspers and the Gaels meet will be purely business between two coaches with massive chips on their shoulders. May the best one win.