On March 16, Richard Pitino became the head men’s basketball coach at the University of New Mexico. After being let go by the University of Minnesota, he was unemployed for less than a day. A change and a fresh start were needed, and Pitino’s move to the southwest made perfect sense.
Richard Pitino Wants to Establish Culture at New Mexico from Day One
Richard Pitino has been spending many hours in his new office on UNM’s campus. The time becoming accustomed to being a Lobo has sprinted by, but burying himself in preparation is an escape. The pandemic and recruiting restrictions have limited his travel as he waits for his wife and their children to finish school up north and make the move to Albuquerque.
Pitino said, “I’ve really gotten to bounce around Albuquerque, see a lot of different places, try different restaurants.”
Despite their palindrome state abbreviations, Minnesota and New Mexico are vastly different cultures. The green and blue colors of the land below Canada have now turned to brown and clay shades that stretch above Mexico for the coach. The food, the pace, the people are all new. The states don’t even get the same type of snow. It’s amazing that dropping 1,225 miles south would actually put a person 5,000 feet higher in the air.
“Normally when you take over a new job, you don’t even really feel the community for about a year into it. When you have three kids and a wife and they’re not here, you don’t feel like you’re fully transitioned, so I’m excited to get them here.”
Full immersion is impractical at the moment due to uncontrollable circumstances, but Pitino has been able to explore his new surroundings. His transition has been at least easier, and his passion and dedication to his craft have halted any loneliness from surfacing. That, and having a strong connection with the athletic director helps.
An Attractive Job
Eddie Nuñez has been UNM’s Director of Athletics since 2017. Nuñez played basketball and served as a graduate assistant at the University of Florida under Billy Donovan. In 2009, Pitino was on Donovan’s staff for two seasons. Donovan played for Pitino’s father at Providence. Connections are important, not just for open positions, but for trust.
“I took the job because of Eddie Nuñez,” Pitino shared. “If you don’t have an athletic director who understands it all, it doesn’t matter how good of a basketball job, facilities, fan base, or conference it is. If you don’t have the leadership in place, a lot can go wrong. It didn’t take long for me to realize Eddie Nuñez was a terrific athletic director and a guy I wanted to work with.”
There are a variety of factors that go into accepting a job, no matter the level or industry, and Pitino was very comfortable when offered the UNM position. The area, the staff, and the fire of the fan base all led to his decision.
“The two main things we sell are the fan base and The Pit. That piques everybody’s interest. Anyone who works their butt off every single day to get to this level of college basketball wants to play in front of sold-out crowds.”
UNM supporters have high expectations, and due to recent stints of success, it’s justified. They yearn to return to quality play, conference championships, and the national scene.
The 2021 college basketball transfer portal has altered the landscape of the game. The NCAA changed a rule that forced inter-collegiate transfers to sit out a year after joining a new program. Now that eligibility is immediate, over 1500 student-athletes have entered the portal. The Lobos has seven new players entering the program.
The transfer portal is trendy. Yet, players feel the need to move to a situation that will better meet their goals. No athlete’s path is the same and if opportunities are presented then they should be taken advantage of. This works if it doesn’t directly affect their academics as well. The individual decision has a spiral effect on group dynamics, though, and can perhaps hinder team progression.
Pitino explained, “I personally don’t love it, but I also know that’s the way this thing is going. Sometimes it works out in the kids’ favor, sometimes it does not. Sometimes the reasons why they want to transfer are justified, sometimes they’re not. It’s just the way college athletics is evolving.”
UNM has benefited and suffered from the transfer portal. They now only have six returning scholarship players and the NCAA allows a total of 13 on a roster per season. With seven new players incoming, the team will look drastically different than they did a season ago.
“You have to adapt as a coach. It’s not ideal bringing in seven or eight guys in the spring. I do feel like we’ve added some really good pieces.”
The Lobos aren’t the only program that has changed tremendously in the Mountain West. With key departures from top-tier schools, the conference is up for grabs next season.
A Different Mountain West
The MWC has been dominated by San Diego State and Utah State as of late, but the schools had disappointing showings in the NCAA Tournament. The conference is now in the midst of a massive shift of talent, which could make the league more competitive.
“It’s too hard for me to say,” Pitino said about the openness of conference play, “but honestly I don’t know if anybody knows because of the amount of transfers. I do know that in order to be good in the conference you have to win at home, you have to have a great home court, and that’s why I think New Mexico is one of the best jobs in the league because you have a great home court. Whenever the time comes when the world resumes to normal again, if you want to win in a basketball conference as good as the Mountain West, you need to win at home.”
As restrictions become more relaxed, Pitino will be able to get a better look at the talent arriving. The coach will also be able to analyze the roster of his opponents. For now, it’s about setting groundwork during year one, especially with all the changes. A championship isn’t guaranteed just because of a hire, but a new process is promised and creates excitement.
“You want to establish a culture right away. Fans are not patient, and the more the fans care, the more impatient they are. Which is fine, it’s the way it’s supposed to be. There are a lot of phases to this. One of the reasons why I love being a college basketball coach is you’re getting [the players] in the formative years of their life. Sure, we want to help them play basketball, but we also want to help them be great husbands, great fathers, great friends, and great members of the community.”
Richard Pitino is ready to build a new foundation for a program that is ready for glory again. The red blazer seemingly fits him perfectly.
“It’s very very clear that they love college basketball here.”
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