After the Iona men’s basketball team’s most successful coach in program history resigned because of medical reasons, the Gaels made a splash with their replacement coaching hire, naming former Kentucky and Louisville boss Rick Pitino as their new head coach. The hiring of a Hall of Famer and national champion head coach to a small mid-major school has sent some shock waves through the college basketball world, and there are several layers of intrigue for Binghamton University and America East (AE) basketball fans.
Iona plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC), one of the most geographically similar leagues to the AE. As a result, the Gaels regularly play AE teams during their nonconference season. For schools like BU, Albany and Stony Brook, the thought of having a famous national champion coach in their buildings seemed unthinkable prior to the hire. Now, it could very well be reality come November.
There are several concerns surrounding Pitino’s hire; he was fired by Louisville in 2017 after the program faced multiple recruiting scandals and was referenced as part of an FBI investigation into bribery in collegiate athletics. The ethical questions surrounding Pitino can be debated, but one thing is clear — mid-major college basketball in the Northeast just got a lot more interesting, and the pressure is on other mid-major programs in New York state, as one of the most notable names in the sport is now a regional rival.
Iona is a private college with around 4,000 students located in New Rochelle, New York. Under former head coach Tim Cluess, the Gaels reached six NCAA tournaments in the last decade, including four straight prior to this season. Statewide, only Syracuse has more appearances in that time. Among mid-major programs in the state, Buffalo has the next highest amount of appearances after Iona and has reached the second round of the tournament twice. While Buffalo has seen more success winning in the tournament than Iona, it can’t claim the level of star power the Gaels now have on their bench.
Syracuse is clearly the gold standard for basketball and all college sports in New York, but for the first time in recent memory, there is a coach as notable as Jim Boeheim working in the state. Pitino won two national championships, although the second was vacated by the NCAA, making his total number of titles equal to Boeheim’s.
While no one is suggesting that Iona men’s basketball will become anywhere near as strong as Syracuse, but it has a chance to become a powerhouse among mid-major programs in the state. Other MAAC teams in New York state such as Manhattan, Canisius, Niagara and Siena have struggled to overtake Iona in recent years, and that gap will only widen with Pitino in charge.
Additionally, BU and other AE teams, as well as New York state teams in the Ivy League, Patriot League, Northeast Conference and others, will now have the chance to challenge themselves in nonconference play with what could become one of the top mid-major programs in the country.
Prior to stepping down, Cluess was arguably the most successful mid-major coach in New York state. Most basketball fans had some familiarity with what he was doing with Iona, but few knew much about him personally. Now, the Gaels have a marquee name that every fan is familiar with. It’s hard to calculate exactly what effect it may have on recruiting, but it’s easy to imagine things getting even better.
Whether or not he deserved another chance in Division I basketball is debatable, but the hiring of Pitino as Iona’s new head coach indisputably has a chance to establish a new powerhouse in mid-major basketball, and the impact of that will be felt throughout the entire college basketball landscape in the state of New York.