Richard Pitino knows Gophers AD Mark Coyle has his back
Richard Pitino often walks into the Bierman Athletic Complex and sends a text message to see what his boss is doing and asks if they can meet up to chat.
Their talks are not always about Gophers basketball. They might be about family life or whatever else is on their minds.
In his first year as athletic director, Mark Coyle was there for Pitino, during good times, bad times or when his young coach just needed to talk to someone he could trust.
The man who some thought could fire Pitino has become his biggest supporter and advocate.
If I called him, he called me right back, Pitino said. I told him I didnt need him cheering me on in the stands. I just wanted to have a personal relationship with him. He understands what it takes to win at this level. He just understands we need support.
Coyle heard what was said 18 months ago, when school President Eric Kaler took a slight detour in Coyles introductory news conference to say hes profoundly disappointed in the mens basketball program and that it simply cant continue.
Coyle now also hears Pitinos voice often, on the other end of the phone, in his office and in the locker room. Sometimes daily during the season.
With the Gophers sliding on a five-game January losing streak last season, Coyle said Pitino called to tell him how much he appreciated his support during a tough time.
He wasnt worried, Coyle said. He was confident that they would get through it.
These two, Coyle and Pitino, have gotten through it together. Tough conversations and, yes, some winning helped quickly form a tight bond between AD and coach.
Times are even better now, of course, with the Gophers ranked No. 14 and heavily favored Sunday against Western Carolina to extend their 3-0 record.
The chemistry between Coyle and Pitino was born at their first lengthy sit-down before last season. Following Kalers very public writhing in May 2016, Coyle listened to Pitino not only explain his programs problems, but own up to them.
He had no excuses and was not trying to find somebody else to blame it on, Coyle said. Thats the first time I saw that type of involvement. I give Coach Pitino and his staff credit, because they said, Lets do this. It sent a strong message.
Pitino made many phone calls to Coyle last season, including one on a Sunday afternoon in late January after an ugly home loss to Maryland dropped the Gophers to 3-6 in the Big Ten. From there, they talked daily. Coyle was present in the locker room and at news conferences after games.
People describe me as steady, Coyle said. I try to bring consistency. When we win I try not to get too high, and when we lose I try not to get too low. I think to be with him during that process he never panicked and the team never panicked. They just kept that business-type approach to the game.
With that support and trust behind him, Pitino coached the Gophers to the NCAA tournament in March, completing the biggest turnaround in program history and ending hot-seat talk, a constant topic during the 8-23 season in 2016-17. Its unlikely another season like that one would have been tolerated under Coyle, a leader who has seen big-time basketball success up close.
At Syracuse, we made it to the Final Four, Coyle said. My last year at Kentucky, they went to the Final Four. I promise you I havent called one play or made one decision [on the court]. But Ive seen it done at a high level and understand it.
Coyle liked what he saw from Pitino last season and gave the coach a contract extension. Now the Gophers have their highest ranking in five years, are considered a Big Ten title contender and have expectations beyond just making the NCAAs.
Me, President Kaler and Richard can all talk about we want to be an NCAA tournament team every year, but actions define you, Coyle said. We need to make sure we can take the steps each day to put ourselves in that position. Being at a Kentucky and being at a Syracuse and seeing the way those programs operate, they are very consistent and intentional with their decisions. I see that with Richard being consistent and intentional on how to build this the right way and make it long term.
When a new athletic director inherits a coach, theres always a chance their relationship will take a long time to develop if it develops. ADs at big schools, like CEOs at big corporations, tend to want to make their own hires for big jobs.
With recruiting on the uptick and a new facility opening in January, Pitino can see himself here a long time as the program takes another step forward. But he said the most important thing is having a close relationship with his AD.
Its a tough profession were in, and he realizes that, Pitino said. I think hes really, really grown. When Mark first got here he was really quiet and reserved. He was just feeling things out, and we all deal with that. Hes just really comfortable with where hes at. I love it here. But if you dont have a great AD all that stuff doesnt matter. And I got a great AD.