ALBANY, N.Y. — Rick Pitino, immaculately dressed in a black suit with a checkered tie and a white pocket square, returned to the N.C.A.A. tournament stage on Friday in a game that helped further his comeback from coaching exile as he chased a memorable March upset.
After his No. 13-seeded Iona Gaels lost to the University of Connecticut, 87-63, in the first round of the men’s N.C.A.A. tournament, Pitino shook hands with UConn Coach Dan Hurley and his players and then walked off the court to the locker room.
It remains to be seen whether the game was his last one as the coach at Iona University, a private Catholic school of about 3,600 students in New Rochelle, N.Y., that Pitino has called home since 2020.
“I really don’t have an answer to it,” Pitino said in the postgame news conference. “I have no idea if it is or isn’t. I focused everything on this game, trying to beat Connecticut.”
Pitino, at 70, has become a red-hot commodity among men’s college basketball teams searching for a coach. Although he has long been respected as a great on the court, he was considered toxic just a few years ago: He was ousted by Louisville in 2017 amid an F.B.I. investigation in which two assistant coaches under Pitino were accused of funneling money from the university’s apparel sponsor, Adidas, to high school recruits.
Pitino has long said that he did not know about the scheme, or another involving a staff member soliciting prostitutes and strippers for players and recruits, and he was not penalized when the N.C.A.A. announced discipline in the case in November.
Since then, Pitino has been linked to high-profile jobs at St. John’s, Georgetown and Texas Tech, and even Providence — which he led to the Final Four in 1987 — if its coach, Ed Cooley, were to leave for another job.
Other coaches tinged with scandal have also been hired anew. Will Wade, a former Louisiana State coach who was a key focus of the F.B.I. investigation into bribery in college basketball, was recently hired at McNeese State, with an agreement that included a five-game suspension to start the 2023-24 season. Former Arizona Coach Sean Miller, also a high-profile subject of the investigation, resurfaced at Xavier last season after Arizona parted ways with him in 2021. Chris Beard, fired by Texas in January in the wake of a domestic violence charge, was hired at Mississippi after the charge was dropped.
Though Pitino has joked that he hasn’t been to St. John’s in 30 years and would not “even know how to get there,” the university in Queens that plays in the Big East Conference appears to be the most likely destination if he opts to leave Iona. Pitino has a previous relationship with the St. John’s president, the Rev. Brian J. Shanley, and would not have to move from his home on the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck.
He would be the star attraction in the games St. John’s plays at Madison Square Garden, where he coached Patrick Ewing and the Knicks in the late 1980s. St. John’s last week fired Mike Anderson after four seasons without an N.C.A.A. tournament appearance.
Ahead of the UConn matchup, Pitino praised his Iona team, which rode a 14-game winning streak into the tournament. Four starters are returning next season to a squad that won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament to gain an automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. field.
“I have two or three guys coming off the bench, so that’s really important to me,” Pitino said. “I look at that as the No. 1 factor in my life, so it’s going to take a special place for me to consider leaving.”
Whether he stays at Iona or leaves, Pitino won’t be done coaching anytime soon.
“I hope I can coach for another 12 years, but I’ll take six or seven,” he said Thursday.
His players, of course, hope he stays.
“The internet going to talk,” sophomore guard Walter Clayton Jr. said when asked about the prospects of Pitino leaving. “We just talk about who’s going to win games, and that’s it.”
During the course of several interviews, Pitino hinted that wherever he coaches, he would like to see the facilities improved.
Asked if St. John’s could climb back to the heights it achieved when it reached the Final Four in 1985 along with fellow Big East members Georgetown and Villanova, Pitino said the new rules in college sports allowing for athletes to make endorsement deals — known widely as name, image and likeness deals (N.I.L.) — allowed for any program to enjoy a reversal of fortune.
“Any program can be built, but you have to change the culture, you have to change the players, because obviously you’re losing for a reason, but anyplace can be built,” he said. “And the N.I.L. is the reason. If you have these collectives, then you go out there and you get yourself free agents.”
With the emergence of the rules, prompted by state laws across the country, some athletic program supporters have formed collectives to pool money to offer endorsement deals for athletes. Formally, universities are not allowed to pay athletes direct salaries.
After Louisville fired Pitino in late 2017, he was hired by the Greek professional team Panathinaikos in December 2018 before he returned to the United States to coach at Iona beginning in 2020.
“The two years I was out of coaching was the most miserable two years of my life because I missed it so much,” he said Thursday. “I love teaching. I love coaching. I love motivating. Everything about it, and I missed it terribly. That’s why I went to Greece. That was a big thing for me.”
Now, Pitino can weigh more options even as he remains the coach at Iona for now.
“They gave me everything they could give me,” he said. “So Iona’s a special, special place.”
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