Hiring Richard Pitino was a short cut, and the Gopher basketball team is gaining national notoriety, even if they haven’t earned it yet.
College basketball is all about events these days. It isn’t nearly enough to play a marquee opponent in the non-conference season. That games must be played in a location unaccustomed to basketball. These made for TV events feature some of the best teams and biggest names in the sport, in some very strange places. Perennial Big Ten power Michigan played on an aircraft carrier, and later on an airbase in Germany, where they played Connecticut, who was only two seasons removed from a national title. The Champions Classic, featuring teams with multiple championships, the Dukes and Kentuckies of the world, rotates between NBA arenas and NFL stadiums, in search of TV ratings.
On Friday in a hangar in Puerto Rico, the Gophers will appear in the spotlight. They didn’t earn it of course, unless you think they did by hiring Richard Pitino. The Armed Forces Classic won’t be about the Gophers, or Louisville, or the troops who get to take a brief break from defending the Caribbean (really, Putin, really?). The Gophers didn’t earn the novelty basketball game, the military themed uniform, or the televised press conference. It is all about the Pitinos, and this is fine. This is a good thing.
Even if Friday’s game is a made for TV father-son showdown that happens to involve college basketball, the national media coverage of the Golden Gophers will be invaluable. On the opening day of the college basketball season, the Golden Gophers, in their new uniforms, and their young and up-and-coming coach, will be beamed into millions of homes around the country and to thousands of soldiers around the world, and maybe into the mind of a young basketball player somewhere, who might suddenly realize that playing basketball for Minnesota is a pretty good idea.
Richard Pitino has taken it upon himself to be the Gophers’ Jebediah Springfield, to embiggen the basketball program, and to make it a national brand. The new make-shift practice facility, the new locker room, the novelty basketball game, at least two novelty uniforms, are all part of this. The national spotlight is fleeting though, and the only way to sustain it is to win games.
There is a short list of basketball programs that year in and year out demand national attention, and a long list of teams which could not sustain success, didn’t stay in the spotlight, and were more or less never heard from again. The Gophers’ need to make the most of these opportunities on the national stage, because they don’t come often, and won’t come again unless the Gophers consistently win games. Rick Pitino didn’t get attention early in his career just because he was a brash young coach. Young coaches are a dime a dozen. He got the attention because he won games, made it to final fours, and won national championships.
Now the spotlight shines on Richard Pitino. He didn’t earn it quite yet, but he can prove he deserves it. Signing a top 25 recruiting class was a good first step. Beating Louisville would be a good second step. Improving upon last season’s NIT championship, and turning solid recruiting classes into consistent winners is the third and most important step.
Richard’s last name brought him the spotlight. His success as a coach will determine if he keeps it.