Rick Pitino returning to big-time college basketball? It’s no longer a matter of if, but where

Rick Pitino, now at Iona, is the only men’s coach to win a national championship at two different schools. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

The Upside Down of March Madness is the annual coaching carousel where failing basketball programs desperately try to identify a winner that can return them to glory.

There are always a few hot, coveted coaching prospects out there. Rarely has there been such a sure thing on the market. There is one now.

He just happens to be 70 years old and freshly attractive for high-major hire because whatever he was accused of in his most recent scandal is now NCAA legal and even so, he managed to survive it with a fresh bill of compliance.

“There is insufficient information to conclude that former head coach No. 1 knew or should have known that the apparel company employee No. 1 was going to pay $100,000 to the father of prospective student-athlete No. 1,” read a NCAA ruling on the University of Louisville basketball program from last November.

Who is “former head coach No. 1?”

None other than Rick Pitino.

That’s right, Ricky P — cleared of all wrongdoing — is coming back.

He actually barely left after the University of Louisville fired him in 2017 following NCAA allegations. Pitino did a stint coaching in Greece, but then three years ago took over at Iona College of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. He made the NCAAs his first year and has won 50 games the last two years. The Gaels (25-7) play Friday in the MAAC semifinals and may still advance to the NCAA Tournament.

If there is such a thing as a guaranteed winner, then Pitino is it. He’s 709-289 (.710) in his college career and his only losing season came at Boston University way back in 1980-81.

He is the only coach in Division I history to lead two different schools to a NCAA championship (Kentucky 1996, Louisville 2013).

He is also the only coach in Division I history to lead three different schools to the Final Four (Louisville three times, Kentucky twice and Providence once, in 1987).

And, yes, the NCAA officially stripped Louisville of that national title for rule violations (that was the case before the most recent case), but he still won those games.

[Free bracket contests for men’s & women’s tourneys for shot at $25K]

That’s the risk/reward for hiring Pitino anyway. You never really know what might happen, but 20-win, NCAA Tournament seasons (accomplished at all of the above plus Boston University and Iona) is assuredly going to be part of it. He’s won at low major, mid major, high major and then low major once again.

Have whistle. Will win.

As such, he’s a top candidate at three major openings already.

• St. John’s offers him a chance to stay in his beloved New York City and restore a once proud program. It’s the one that probably makes the most sense.

• Georgetown has enormous potential and, like St. John’s, gets Pitino back into the Big East where he always made the most sense.

• Texas Tech is said to be ready to make a huge monetary offer and a chance to compete in the Big 12, which is what is currently the best basketball conference in the country.

Then again, Pitino in … Lubbock? If a Pizza Hut and a Domino’s are on the same block they call it “Little Italy.”

“Where I lived wasn’t important in the past, and now it is,” Pitino told CBSSports.com last month when openly discussing his future. “I have no idea what the answer is about where I’ll be or what I’ll do. I know I love [Iona]. I know I’m eight minutes away [from home]. I know I love Winged Foot. … I do know that there’s certain places and there’s 20 or 30 states where I don’t want to live.”

Maybe the entire State of Texas isn’t on that list of 20 to 30, but the South Plains of Texas might be. Or maybe the Red Raiders facilities, budgets and recent success overcomes that.

With Pitino, you never know.

“It would have to be someplace really, really special with the type of president that I have here,” Pitino said, citing his symbiotic relationship with the Iona administration. “Now, it’s easy. I got exonerated by the NCAA, they said you didn’t do anything, now it’s easy to hire me. But [Iona president] Seamus Carey didn’t have that guarantee.”

Perhaps loyalty will win out but Pitino seems well-aware that as satisfying as coaching in the MAAC can be, there are limits. Being in a one-bid league is frustrating.

“I want to coach five or six more years,” Pitino said, aware of his age. “I still exercise like a demon. I still get after it. And as long as you do that, your mind is sharp. I’m still more passionate about it today than I’ve ever been in my life.

“And again, it’s because I know my window’s closing. I want to do something special, whether it’s at Iona or not doesn’t matter. I want to do something special, and I think we are doing something special.”

Who would bet against him taking over nearly any program and crossing various thresholds of success — 20-win season, NCAA Tournament, even another trip to the Final Four?

Tactically he’s still as good as there is in all of basketball. He’s still charismatic and charming on the recruiting trail. His track record of player development and NBA success is unquestioned. His team’s get better.

The guy wins. Always. And as the NCAA has loosened its rule book and society has eased on its moral purity, there is still time for one more out there for Rick Pitino, college basketball legend.

It’s no longer about if, it’s about where.

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