Eduardo Almaguer/Sports Director
Making history was not enough to keep men’s basketball Head Coach Richard Pitino rooted with the Panthers and now the search is on for a new coach.
On April 3, news broke that Pitino reached a verbal agreement to be the new coach at the University of Minnesota.
The stunning departure comes less than a month after Pitino finished a season where he led the Panthers to an 18-14 season and the program’s first Sun Belt Conference championship game.
No one on the basketball team knew that Pitino planned on leaving.
““We had one of the best seasons in FIU history and we were going in the right direction. I’m just shocked he would leave right now,” senior guard Manny Nunez said.
Malik Smith, the team’s leading three-point shooter and second on the team in points per game, indicated via Twitter that he was going to ask his release immediately.
“It might be time for me to part ways for FIU,” Smith said via Twitter.
Pitino leaves the program after year one of a five-year, $1.25 million deal that he signed in April 2012. His contract states that because he left before April 2015, he must now pay FIU one year’s base salary worth $250,000.
Retaining Pitino was something Pete Garcia, executive director of sports and entertainment, attempted, but in the end couldn’t. In a press conference on April 4, Garcia said he sat down with Pitino at the end of the season and they had agreed to a modest pay raise, but once Garcia realized Minnesota offers, he knew it’d be tough to keep the 30-year-old coach.
Pitino’s deal with Minnesota is six years with a base salary of $1.2 million per year, totaling $7.2 million.
“FIU can’t go there at this point in time,” Garcia said.
Garcia was unsure if Pitino would be taking his assistants with him. None of the assistants could be reached for comment.
A national search for a new basketball coach is now underway. Garcia says he wants to hire someone within the coming week.
“I want somebody that’s going to do things right. I want somebody that’s going to demand that the kids go to class and graduate,” Garcia said. “I know we have a good list of candidates and there’s a lot of people interested in this job.”
One omen hanging over the head of the incoming coach is the academic troubles of the squad.
Garcia hinted that the FIU men’s basketball may soon be slapped with a postseason ban for the 2013-14 season for sub par academic progress rate scores.
The likely ban stems from the poor scores the team achieved during former Head Coach Isiah Thomas’ three-year tenure.
The NCAA draws the cutoff mark for penalties at 900. The maximum score is 1000.
In the 2009-10 season, the team had a single-year 900 mark, lower than the previous year’s 933. In 2010-11, Thomas’ players registered a dismal single-year 833 score. The 2011-12 scores have not been released, but they’re expected to be below 900.
APR is a metric created by the NCAA to gauge how much progress institutions are making in graduating their student-athletes. The number is derived from two factors, worth one point each: eligibility and retention.
In other words, players gets their two points if the athlete meets the GPA cutoff mark and if they stay in school that year. Points are then tallied up, divided by the maximum amount of possible points — determined by number of athletes on the team — and multiplied by one thousand to reach the final score.
Garcia said he’s been in contact with an APR specialist who alerted him that basketball was “heading down the wrong road” and was part of the reason FIU fired Thomas last season.
In the press conference, Garcia acknowledged the possible ban and said that in the search for a new men’s basketball coach, he’s going to make all candidates very aware of the dilemma like he did with Pitino.
“Richard [Pitino] inherited that and Richard did a tremendous job of doing everything he could to fix that,” Garcia said. “He’s leaving us in a lot better shape than we ever managed.”
This is not the first time FIU has run into trouble with the NCAA. In 2008, FIU lost 11 sports scholarships for ”misapplied enrollment and financial aid rules, transfer requirements and eligibility rules” during their shift from Division I-AA to Division I-A.
Whether the new coach will be here two years or 10, Garcia said he has a strong vision of the program’s future.
“We want to be successful at the next level,” he said. “We want to go to the NCAA [tournament] and be successful there. We want to win in everything we do.”