Rick Pitino hired as Iona's next men's basketball coach

Eugene Rapay
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
Former Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino

Iona's search for a new head coach didn't take long.

Following Tim Cluess' resignation after 10 years as the Gaels' head coach on Friday, Iona announced that it will be hiring Rick Pitino to take over the helm of the program on Saturday.

"If I was going to return to college basketball, it really wasn't what would take place between the lines, it would be what would take place away from the lines," Pitino, a New York City native, said. "That would be proximity from my home, my family, where I grew up. I wasn't necessarily looking to going to the Louisvilles and Kentuckies of the world. I was more interested in family, friends, and where I grew up more than anything else."

Terms of the deal were not disclosed by the school. However, a source said Pitino agreed to a five-year pact for slightly less per year than Cluess, who made approximately $1.1 million.

CLUESS: Iona head coach Tim Cluess resigns due to health

Pitino cited his longtime friendship with Iona College president Seamus Carey and other members within the school's Board of Trustees as a reason for coming to the New Rochelle school.

Pitino, who became the first college basketball coach to take three different schools to the NCAA Final Four, has coached in Greece with the Euroleague's Panathinaikos. This is his first return to Division I college basketball since being ousted from Louisville as part of a play-for-pay recruiting scandal in 2017. 

"I was having an awesome time in Greece," Pitino said. "Except one thing: I have 12 grandchildren, I have five children, a wife, and obviously I was by myself for two years. Between the lines, the players that I was coaching and travelling to places that I've never seen, the basketball was awesome. Away from the lines, it was difficult. Now, it's an opportunity to get back home."

Pitino compiled a 647-271 record at the collegiate level. He led Kentucky to a national title in 1996, and he did the same with Louisville in 2013, but the Cardinals' championship was later vacated along with 123 victories.

Before Louisville, Pitino also held head coaching positions at Boston University, Providence, and Kentucky. He had stints in the NBA with the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics.

Now, he's looking to settle down at "a small Catholic school to end his career." 

"I told the people at Iona that I'm not looking to go to the mountaintop. I'm looking to climb a mountain. They didn't totally believe me," he said, laughing. "It sounded good to them, but it would have to be 'Fort Knox University' for me to move on, because that's how difficult it would be to leave Iona."

This past season, the Gaels went 12-17 overall and 9-11 in conference play, under the guidance of acting head coach Tra Arnold, an assistant who filled in for Cluess as he dealt with an undisclosed health issue. They reached the quarterfinals of the MAAC Tournament before falling to second-seeded Saint Peter's on a last-second shot Wednesday.

"I am delighted to welcome Rick Pitino to Gael Nation," director of athletics Matthew Glovaski said in a statement. "Rick is a Hall of Fame coach who has won at the highest levels and he is committed to leading our student-athletes and our program to national prominence. He brings passion and energy and shares our desire to build a winning program that will make our community proud."

His predecessor, Cluess, went 199-108 in nine seasons coaching the Gaels, leading them to six NCAA Tournament appearances since 2012.

"It's not only about continuing the great work that Tim did on the basketball court, but trying to bring it to a level that it hasn't been," Pitino said of his vision for the program. "That's always the goal in any situation, upgrade the facilities, upgrade the program, and in this case, what's been taking place between the lines is outstanding. Just want to continue and build everything that Tim has built and carry on the tradition that Iona had."

Follow Eugene Rapay on Twitter at @erapay5.