Busting Brackets

St. John’s Basketball: Rick Pitino nears return to college basketball limelight

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 16: Head coach Rick Pitino of Iona looks on during a practice session ahead of the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 16, 2023 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 16: Head coach Rick Pitino of Iona looks on during a practice session ahead of the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 16, 2023 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

Rick Pitino and a reunion with the Big East conference seems to be on the brink of happening as St. John’s rumors intensify.

Sometimes we don’t want to admit it, but deep down it is universally accepted that villains are part of what makes sports fun.

And like any sport, college basketball thrives when it features a strong cast of easy-to-hate characters. Characters that bring out such strong feelings of hatred the nation collectively rejoice when they fail and mourns when they succeed. Over the past four decades, not many have better embraced the role of being a college basketball villain than Rick Pitino.

I always liked characterizing Pitino as being respectably shady. Someone that wanted to win so badly and wasn’t afraid to bend the rules to get it done. And I can’t help but tip my cap that he holds such a burning desire to win as many games as possible while making his opposition feel like it’s impossible to keep up.

We all knew Pitino was likely dabbling in some shady practices on the side. But let’s be real, at some point throughout his illustrious run, we’ve all also reluctantly thought at one point or another “man, I wish he coached my team.”

It was just over four years ago when it felt like Rick Pitino’s storied career in college basketball was coming to such a turbulent conclusion, and the Pitino haters would have the last laugh for eternity.

Amidst a series of scandals that culminated in Pitino’s 2013 National Championship at Louisville being vacated, Pitino slipped into the darkness and made a move halfway across the world after accepting the job to coach Greek club Panathinaikos of Athens. Panathinaikos is a storied team with a passionate, raucous fanbase that expects wins.

Personally, I can think of worse ways to wind down a career than enjoying the history, beaches, and world-class cuisine that Greece has to offer. All-in-all, this had the makings of a perfect situation for a basketball fiend like Pitino. An opportunity to continue enjoying and growing the game he loves in a high-stakes environment while also escaping the onslaught of the American sports media.

But if you thought Pitino was going to find fulfillment in this stage of his journey, you haven’t been paying attention to, well, his entire career. Because if there’s one thing Pitino would admit he’s learned throughout his career, it’s that he doesn’t enjoy coaching professionals.

Well, maybe it’s not that he doesn’t enjoy it. But it’s just not him. He tried coaching the New York Knicks, he tried coaching the Boston Celtics. And most recently, he tried it again with Panathinaikos. It would be unfair to label Pitino’s stints with professionals as a failure, but it just wasn’t him.

So if you’re curious as to why someone would leave sunny Greece to coach a small, private, Catholic school in New Rochelle, New York it’s because at the ripe age of 66, Rick Pitino finally accepted a notion he had already attempted running from twice: he needs college basketball.

And while some may not want to admit it, college basketball needs Rick Pitino.

Pitino’s inevitable return to NCAA Basketball

So in March of 2020, Pitino left to Greece to accept the head coaching job at Iona. In typical Pitino fashion, he had the Gaels back in the NCAA Tournament his first year on the job. After winning the MAAC regular season championship but shockingly losing in the conference tournament in 2022, Pitino and the Gaels once again went dancing in 2022. Over three years at Iona, Pitino compiled a 64-22 record.

Despite the media whirlwind, Coronavirus Pandemic, and coaching mid-major basketball for the first time since the Reagan administration, Pitino effortlessly proved that he’s still got it.

Unsurprisingly, the big dogs of college basketball now find themselves competing for Pitino’s services once again, and the current spectacle seems to be trending towards a reunion that should make every college basketball fan excited.

It’s been nearly 34 years since Pitino resigned as the head coach of the New York Knicks to take the same job at the University of Kentucky. It’s been 10 years since Pitino last coached in the Big East due to Louisville leaving to join the ACC.

The current coaching carousel seems to be bridging together these two stages of Pitino’s Hall of Fame career.

Once a proud program, St. John’s has been seeping further and further into mediocrity over the past two decades. The Red Storm have only made the NCAA Tournament five times since the turn of the century. Once St. John’s fired Mike Anderson at the end of the 2023 season, the Red Storm had a head coaching candidate list with all of one name on it. Their ensuing full-court press for Pitino has been the worst-kept secret in college basketball.

Obviously, there’s no way of fully guaranteeing a head coaching hire will work out. As legendary as Pitino’s career has been, it hasn’t been a story of resounding success everywhere. His stints with the Knicks and Celtics didn’t lead to much in terms of championships, and the fit in Greece always felt awkward.

But a return to Madison Square Garden, the quote-on-quote “mecca” of basketball, to compete against some of the sport’s most elite programs? It’s hard to envision a more perfect marriage. THIS feels right. This is who Rick Pitino is. Who he’s always been.

It has been widely reported that Pitino is meeting with St. John’s higher-ups on Sunday evening. Additionally, Zach Braziller of the New York Post has claimed that if Pitino is named the head coach billionaire alum Mike Repole is prepared to help back the program in its NIL endeavors. St. John’s has no other candidate, and this hire feels like a formality at this point.

His methods, tactics, and general approach to the game have aged like fine wine. Now, at 70 years old, he looks to restore a once prominent program to glory. There isn’t any other hire in the world St. John’s could have made to give its fanbase such a badly needed jolt of energy.

Rick Pitino is one of the sport’s ultimate inevitables. Scandals, a global pandemic, opportunities to coach two of the most prominent franchises in the NBA, a move to Greece. Every time you think you’ve finally gotten rid of him he reemerges and leads a new program to the promised land. Nothing can keep Rick Pitino from his true love of college basketball. And so far? Nothing can keep Rick Pitino from dominating this sport at any and every level.

St. John’s is in need of resurrecting, so who better than the Hall of Fame coach in the midst of resurrecting his career? With Pitino at the helm, St. John’s reemergence into national prominence feels like more of a matter of when than if. Fans of everyone else can only accept the unavoidable reality that the villain you once loved to hate is now back firmly in the sport’s limelight.

Next. Early stars of the NCAA Tournament. dark

So if you were one that was enjoying Pitino’s descent into futility and thought you had the eternal last laugh, the only advice I can offer is to remind yourself to savor those moments when his program does slip up in the future.

Because you’re also going to have to remember how to deal with the inevitable bundles of success his team is about to enjoy.