Photo courtesy of Iona athletics

A little over three years ago, Iona head coach Rick Pitino was terminated at the University of Louisville for the infamous “pay for the play scandal.” 

The scandal surrounded allegations of the Adidas brand paying a highly-ranked recruit planning to play for the Cardinals $100,000 to represent the brand when he turned pro. Now, after a sickening three years for the Pitino family, the well-traveled head coach says he’s “in heaven.”

Pitino has seen it all, winning national championships at both Kentucky in 1996, and Louisville in 2013 – although the latter was vacated after the prior sex scandal that came to light involving more recruits heading to Louisville. 

He’s coached in the NBA for both the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics. But now, Pitino is right “where I need to be.” 

After two seasons coaching in Greece in the EuroLeague, Pitino returned to the United States to coach the Iona Gaels. This season, the well-traveled and accomplished head coach led the Gaels to a MAAC title and the NCAA Tournament where they fell 68-55 to second-seeded Alabama in the first round. 

“I came back to Iona, I wanted no part of the so-called big-time any more, I had enough of that,” Pitino said. 

 “I wanted to take a smaller school, like a Providence, like an Iona, small school, and try to make it big,” Pitino continued. “But I wanted no part of any of that other. I had enough of that. It turned me off, to be quite honest with you, in a lot of different areas.”

The 68-year-old said that the trust factor has returned in New Rochelle, NY. 

“I now don’t have to look over my shoulder to see who I’m going to trust, who I’m not going to trust,” he said. 

A New Powerhouse

Senior guard Isaiah Ross believes Pitino can make Iona a powerhouse mid-major. 

“He came here first year and we went to March Madness, won the MAAC,” he said. “It’s definitely achievable with a coach like him. It just takes time.”

Ross said that Pitino made “a huge impact” on both his game and in his life in his lone season coaching the Davenport, Iowa native. 

“He’s a Hall of Famer. I really wanted to learn from him,” Ross added. “As soon as he got the job, he texted me. I told him, ‘you’re probably going to get annoyed with me because I’m trying to learn as much as I can in this year that I have with you. Let’s make it a great year’.” 

The senior believes this program should be one to watch out for. The Gaels have already won the last five of the last six MAAC championships. With Pitino at the helm, Ross thinks Iona can take a step up to the next level. 

“His IQ is off the charts,” Ross marveled. “He sees things that other coaches wouldn’t see. That’s why he’s a Hall of Fame coach. Just the way he goes about the game. He has us stay in the gym. He loves basketball. So it trickles down the tree. We all gotta love it.

“Iona is definitely going to be a powerhouse on the East Coast, I would say,” Ross continued. “I believe it already is. With Iona bringing a coach like that in, it just boosts its character and stuff like that.”

Heaven On Earth

It sounds like Iona may be the place where Pitino ultimately finishes his career, and that’s just fine. He’s exactly where he wants to be — a no-pressure job where he just gets to coach basketball. It’s a different situation for the long-time head coach. 

“I just want to just coach, teach young people how to become better basketball players,” Pitino admitted. “It’s no longer about me trying to move up any ladders, make more money. I’m at a great place in my life. I can coach six, seven more years, God willing. Just try to make young men better, try to make the program reach heights it’s never reached. That’s all I have planned.”

For the college basketball world, look out. The Gaels are coming, and they’re coming fast. 

Don’t be surprised if this team is the next Oral Roberts in the NCAA Tournament. Iona is still seeking its first tournament win in school history.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Iona is going to be a force to be reckoned with down the road,” Pitino added. “It’s a great place to be. So I’m a very lucky man that our president (Seamus Carey), and our athletic director (Matthew Glovaski) flew over to Madrid, Spain, and offered me the job.”