ALBANY, N.Y. — After the final game of his third season at Iona, Rick Pitino said he didn’t know whether he would be back for a fourth — or if he would be coaching somewhere else.
Will he stay at Iona, or will he go?
“I really don’t have an answer to it, to be honest with you,” Pitino said. “I have no idea if it is or isn’t because I’ve focused everything on this game.”
The 70-year-old Pitino, who reached the NCAA tournament with Iona for the second time after a storied Hall of Fame career at Boston University, Providence, Kentucky, Louisville and the NBA, remains St. John’s No. 1 target, sources told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello on Friday.
The two sides have had discussions and no deal has been finalized, sources said, but the search has remained focused on Pitino and no other serious candidates have emerged.
On the court, Pitino’s 13th-seeded Gaels hung tough with No. 4 UConn on Friday before falling 87-63.
For a half, it looked like Pitino might get his first coaching win as a double-digit seed. Iona led UConn 39-37 at the break following what Pitino called the best half his team had played all season.
But that would not last. Connecticut more than doubled up Iona in the second half, coasting to the win to send Pitino into the coaching questions he fielded as often the day before the Gaels’ first-round NCAA game as he did afterward.
Before he arrived at the podium for his postgame news conference, Pitino walked through the hallways of MVP Arena. He wished luck to a Drake player — Drake and Miami were playing the following game — and then stopped to talk for a brief moment with P.J. Carlesimo, the former Seton Hall coach and current ESPN radio analyst. Flanked by an armed police officer, Pitino walked by the Iona band before he ran into Connecticut coach Dan Hurley.
He and Hurley embraced, and Pitino told Hurley, “Win it all. Win it all. You’ve got the team to do it.”
It’s something he would repeat moments later on the dais, saying he believed the Huskies had the attributes in place to win a national championship.
Pitino said he wasn’t becoming emotional on the podium when he was asked about his future. He later talked about being exonerated in the Louisville basketball scandal and how it took years away from his career. He said he has cherished his past — both the successes and the mistakes — and where he is now. On Thursday, Pitino said he would consider coaching for another decade.
Pitino had a 293-140 record at Louisville with three Final Fours and a national championship (two of the Final Four appearances, the 2013 national title and 123 other wins were vacated due to the scandal); a 219-50 record at Kentucky with three Final Fours and a national title; a 42-23 record at Providence with a Final Four; and a 91-51 record at Boston University following a six-game stint at Hawai’i. He also coached in the NBA with the Knicks and Celtics and for two seasons in Greece at Panathinaikos.
It all led to his past three seasons at Iona, where he is 64-22 with two NCAA tournament appearances and might be on the move again.
“The present is where we’re at right now, and it’s disappointing for my guys because they’re a great group of kids,” Pitino said. “And the future, I really have no idea what the future may bring because I got to look at the grand scheme of things about winning, and winning is very important because we all work so hard, every coach works so hard.
“And we played almost a perfect game, best half of the season.”
When he was pushed about whether he had a timeline to stay at Iona or go to St. John’s or perhaps elsewhere, he again had no answer.
“I really haven’t put any thought into it at all. I hear the question from you, and I think when you start thinking ahead, you always fail,” Pitino said. “We put a lot of effort into this game, and I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s right for me, another job. I don’t know that.”
Pitino acknowledged the conversations around the St. John’s position before saying he has never seen St. John’s. Perhaps he meant in its current form, because Pitino then launched into a story about coaching against legendary St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca in 1987.
After telling the story — Pitino always has a story — he circled back to something that might show some of his thinking.
“You don’t buy houses without looking at the garage, the upstairs, the kitchen and everything,” Pitino said. “You don’t just buy a house.”
About 20 minutes later, his news conference concluded and Pitino left — guard at his side, gaggle of media walking behind him — stopping to briefly chat with a couple of media members before entering the Iona locker room as his sports information director said he wouldn’t be doing any more interviews.
Was that the last time he will walk into Iona’s locker room after a game as the team’s head coach? Pitino said he doesn’t know. He doesn’t have a timetable for it.