Rick Pitino’s first season as coach of Iona College has begun. After one win and two losses, the Gaels will play Quinnipiac on Friday and Saturday nights.
By Stephen Butler
On March 14, just a day after the NCAA decided to cancel this year’s tournament because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Iona College Gaels basketball program hired Rick Pitino to coach its men’s team. Pitino, of course, had led both the University Kentucky and the University of Louisville to national titles and multiple Final Fours before being unceremoniously fired by Louisville for his supposed involvement in a pay-to-play scam, which followed a previous scandal surrounding revelations that recruits had been enticed with hookers and strippers during overnight visits to campus. Louisville’s 2013 title was subsequently vacated by the NCAA, and Pitino went into coaching exile in the Greek pro league.
For those of us who follow NCAA football and basketball, these sports provide regular examples of recycled coaches, whose success cannot help but recall Martin Amis’s wry observation inspired by the post-“Pulp Fiction” career of John Travolta: “How drunk was F. Scott Fitzgerald when he said that there were no second acts in American lives?” During the 2019 March Madness tournament, it was seeing the formerly disgraced Bruce Pearl guide Auburn to the Final Four. During the 2019 college football season, it was seeing the formerly discarded Ed Oregon lead LSU to the national championship.
But Pitino’s recycling by Iona was greeted with shock, surprise and a considerable degree of moralizing. “Iona has sold its soul to the devil” was a particularly popular metaphor employed by those both within and outside the Gael nation. “The proof is in the people at Iona” went a ubiquitous advertising jingle from decades ago and the Pitino hire proved to many that Iona, a still proudly Catholic institution, was morally bankrupt and hypocritical for hiring a coach who cheated not only in the context of recruiting, but who also confessed to cheating on his wife with a woman who subsequently tried to extort him.
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No doubt any ethical estimation of the hire was also done in the context of a comparison with the man Pitino replaced, Tim Cluess. Cluess, in his first and only Division I head coaching job, after a long career leading high school, junior college and Division II programs in Long Island, guided Iona to an unprecedented decade of hoops dominance before having to resign for health reasons: nine postseason appearances, eight 20-win seasons, five Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament Championships, four MAAC Regular Season Championships and zero NCAA sanctions.
Besides Cluess though, Iona’s list of former coaches includes some decidedly unsaintly characters. Cluess replaced Kevin Willard, the Pitino protégé who has steered Seton Hall to both national relevance and NCAA probation. And most notably, Iona was coached from 1975-1980 by the late Jim Valvano who went on to lead NC State to both a 1983 national title and a 1990 NCAA tournament ban. In fact, the greatest moment in Iona basketball history occurred under Valvano, when the Gaels shocked then-number-two ranked Louisville at Madison Square Garden in February 1980. The 40th anniversary of this win was celebrated by Iona last season. Less celebrated was the fact that the 1980 Iona team had to vacate the program’s first and still only NCAA tournament win because of violations under Valvano. Jimmy V didn’t live long enough to have a second act to his coaching career. Rather, his short but celebrated second act was as a motivational speaker while he battled cancer. His inspirational address to the 1993 ESPY Awards is still well-known.
Pitino will get his second act on the sidelines of the only college in the country founded by the Irish Christian Brothers (not to be confused with the French or Lasallian Christian Brothers who founded schools like Manhattan College, LaSalle University in Philadelphia and St Mary’s in California). In the center of Iona’s New Rochelle campus, sits a statue of St Columba, the legendary Irish monk who, while in exile, founded an abbey on the Scottish isle of Iona that became a famous center of learning. Columba’s sojourn on the historical isle of Iona might provide a rich metaphor for a successful Pitino tenure at Iona College. After being hired, Pitino told WFAN radio: “I’m at my best developing young athletes. That’s where I belong. I’m super excited about being at Iona. It will be my last stop, and I hope we make it a glorious run.” The stories of the wise old leader mentoring young scholar-warriors will write themselves. But perhaps there is another apt analogy related to a different island.
Sitting amid a lake called Lough Derg in County Donegal, Columba’s place of birth, lies Station Island and more particularly, the pilgrimage site known as St Patrick’s Purgatory. Legend has it that at this site, which thousands of barefoot pilgrims still visit each year, Christ himself showed St. Patrick an entrance to Purgatory, that place of expiatory purification every Catholic has probably heard about, if not read about in their catechism. The late great poet Seamus Heaney wrote a long autobiographical poem using this place as inspiration. And there is a medieval poem about it composed in Latin by Henry of Saltey, later translated into French by Marie de France, that tells the tale of an Irish knight named Owein who journeys through Purgatory. Of course these medieval poems should not be confused with the much more famous middle-section of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” though some scholars have speculated on the influence of these texts on the Italian. The thing about Purgatory in all these poems, and in the catechism, is that though souls might suffer while there, it’s for purification, not punishment, and it won’t last forever, because these souls are assured of heaven. So maybe Pitino’s tenure in New Rochelle, however it goes, might be thought of as just passing time, getting cleaned up, on the way to eternity.
Now that his first season as coach finally begun and Pitino’s quintessentially American second act has commenced, bet the house on stories and headlines that stress Catholic concepts like sin, contrition, penance and reconciliation. Expect stories that frame Iona as a place of both banishment and potential redemption. But know that no matter what shining moments Pitino does or does not achieve during this encore/exile at Iona, no matter what triumphs, trials or tribulations he endures during this temporary stay in this professional purgatory, Pitino has already assured himself an eternal place in the history of college basketball.
Stephen Butler is an alumnus of Iona College. He currently teaches in the Expository Writing Program at NYU. He recently published his first book, “Irish Writers in the Irish American Press, 1882-1964.”