‘It’s just an easy lifestyle’: Rick Pitino finds success and fun in Iona

NEW ROCHELLE, NY – Rick Pitino looks like a pretty happy coach where he is. Two years into his tenure as head of Iona College’s men’s basketball program, things appear to be on the right track for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame head coach.

Iona has quickly become a powerhouse in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), and Pitino appears to have found renewed vigor at the small Catholic college tucked less than an hour from Manhattan. The Gaels are in the midst of a perfect 10-0 record in the MAAC this season, and on Sunday they knocked out the conference’s No. 2 team, Saint Peter’s.

This all happened amid Pitino earning his 800th career victory as a college head coach.

“I told the team I’m happy to get 800 points here, but I want to get another 200 here,” Pitino said. “God willing, I won’t be drawing a seven anytime soon and it will happen. I’m really, really excited to train these guys that I can get 800 here. The school is a small school where we appreciate all the little things. He doesn’t have the big stuff. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles I had in Louisville and Kentucky, but none of that bothers me.

“That’s the big thing. I love the fact that I don’t have to get on a plane and go play someone. I love bus travel.

The New Rochelle campus is a far cry from the basketball powerhouses of the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, where Pitino coached from 2001 to 2017 before being fired for his involvement in a pay-for-pay scandal. play that happened while he was the head coach. The NCAA vacated Louisville’s national title in 2013 and also stripped it of 123 wins.

Now, nearly four years later, Pitino is over what happened at Louisville and holds no ill will towards the university for firing him. The 69-year-old quickly discovered what previous coaches before him had discovered.

“It’s just easy. It’s just an easy lifestyle to train kids who really care,” Pitino said. “We’re not worried about getting a NIL for $150,000. Nobody cares. You just worry about playing ball and getting better. I’m glad to be here. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve had.

That’s a resounding statement from a coach who led five different programs at the NCAA Tournament.

Although Pitino appreciates the simplicity of the workout without some of the added additions of a larger program, it hasn’t diminished his intensity. A spirited Pitino patrolled the touchline in Sunday’s win over Saint Peter’s – and that’s a trait his players expect of him.

“He was intense when I first met him and he’s still intense now,” guard Iona Elijah Joiner said.

It’s certainly paid off as Iona has beaten every conference opponent they’ve seen this year and is halfway to a perfect season in the conference, which would make them the first MAAC team to do so since. La Salle accomplished the feat during the 1989-90 season.

For guard Tyson Jolly, what set the Gaels on their current trajectory was the summer exhibition schedule they played in Greece last August.

“When we played national teams after being together as a team for a week,” Jolly said. “Go out there and really compete, learn from each other, understand each other and see how hard we fought for each other. And we fought against each other back when we didn’t even know each other and played for a coach that we just got here.

“He’s screaming and we don’t understand what he’s talking about and how bonded we have been.”

Joiner, Jolly and the rest of the Iona basketball team were also reminded how important their head coach was. During the trip to Greece, Jolly remembered how many people had recognized Pitino.

Jolly recalls that in Athens, children and fans were shouting Pitino’s name and asking for photos. “It’s like a heist man, he’s getting LeBron (James) love here,” he said with a laugh.

Although there have been discussions that Pitino could be considered for the job vacancy in maryland — he appeared to indicate he wasn’t interested in leaving Iona on Sunday — the Hall of Fame coach knows he has to enjoy every day he becomes a college basketball coach.

“My window is closing so I want to make the most of every day,” Pitino said. “I know when my time is up. … Luckily for me, I’m not close to that.

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