Richard Pitino will return to Minnesota for an eighth season as head coach, several media outlets reported on March 13, one day after the cancellation of the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament. If the coronavirus didn’t end Minnesota’s season hours before a scheduled Second Round game vs. Iowa and halt the coaching carousel, might Pitino have been fired?
There were 113 college basketball head-coaching changes over the last two years—58 after 2017-18, 55 after 2018-19. As of April 13, one month after the season ended, there have been 20 changes, none at high-major programs.
There was no indication Minnesota athletics director Mark Coyle was planning to fire Pitino (and pay a $2 million buyout) and backtracked amidst the coronavirus crisis. That change, however, seemed highly possible, and it might’ve benefited a program 1,200 miles away.
If Coyle pulled the plug on Pitino after whiffing on the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in seven years, he might’ve called Craig Smith, a Minnesota native who was one week removed from his second Mountain West Tournament championship in two years as Utah State head coach.
Smith, a 47-year-old former longtime Tim Miles assistant who won 48 games in his final two years at South Dakota before arriving in Logan, was potentially on the short list of several programs considering a change. Instead, Utah State, even after the graduation of Sam Merrill and Diogo Britol, is the big winner, retaining Smith for at least one more season.
What other programs might’ve benefited from a coronavirus-impacted coaching carousel?
Kevin Willard, one year after rejecting Virginia Tech’s advances, might’ve been the name this year. Minnesota, Boston College, Clemson, Miami (FL) or Wake Forest, could’ve reasonably poached him. Instead, all those programs retained their coaches and Seton Hall wasn’t forced into battle again, nor was Murray State forced into another search for a departed coach. The last three Racers’ head coaches—Mick Cronin, Billy Kennedy, and Steve Prohm—left for bigger jobs after three, five, and four years, respectively, but McMahon is coming back for his sixth season.
Gregg Marshall reportedly flirted with the Texas opening five years ago before returning to Wichita State. If Shaka Smart would’ve been fired if not for the coronavirus, might the Longhorns have finally landed one of the most in-demand mid-major coaches of all time? And Marshall’s former longtime assistant, Chris Jans, is still at New Mexico State despite three sensational years.
East Tennessee State didn’t lose Steve Forbes, nor did Furman lose Bob Richey. And, somehow, UNC Greensboro continues to retain Wes Miller, a 37-year-old Greensboro native with 104 wins over the last four seasons.
Winthrop kept Pat Kelsey, Colgate didn’t lose Matt Langel to Boston College or another northeastern job, and Wright State isn’t searching for Scott Nagy’s replacement. Stephen F. Austin didn’t lose Kyle Keller to Oklahoma State or another high-major program, and Grant McCasland is heading back to North Texas for his fourth season after leading the Mean Green to a third straight 20-win season.
North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton was on several short lists last year, including East Carolina, before returning to his alma mater, where he’ll chase a fifth NCAA Tournament berth in the last eight years.