Iona College announced the appointment of Hall of Fame Coach Rick Pitino to lead its men’s basketball program on March 14, 2020, at the same time that the nation was bracing itself for the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. Getting right to work and unaware of the challenges ahead, Pitino quickly assembled a coaching staff, a roster and a schedule. Five new coaches and eight new student-athletes were locked in – the student-athletes all via Zoom – before he was even able to step foot on Iona’s campus due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Upon arrival in New Rochelle, Pitino identified areas of improvement which could enhance the student-athlete and overall student experience. Pitino looks for athletes with PHDs – passion, hunger and drive. Entering the season with only four returning players and tasked with the challenge of building a strong program, Pitino was paving a path on the broad shoulders of Iona’s past coaches. In an interview with the New York Post in March 2020, Pitino reflected on how past coaches he spoke to knew what a special place Iona was.
“And for every single coach that has gone through there to say that, that’s a damn special thing,” Pitino said.
When athletes arrived on campus in late July for the start of the fall semester, a strict protocol was set to protect the College community from pandemic outbreaks. Although doing their best to prepare for the season, the hurdles came at them fast and furious, including a delayed start, no fans allowed at games and a reduced number of games, as well as a reorganization of the MAAC schedule that effectively shut down any team travel.
Throughout a season rife with stops and starts, due both to positive COVID cases for the Gaels as well as their opponents, Pitino was a guiding force. After testing positive himself in early January, Pitino battled with the stress of quarantine away from his team and his family and the frustration of having to reshuffle the Gaels’ play schedule. The Gaels had a rocky start to their season, trading wins and losses every other game. But Pitino’s experience and the team’s strength shone through, carrying the Gaels to strong wins at the end of their regular season.
Fighting through all their obstacles, the men’s basketball program began its magical run in Atlantic City on March 9, 2021. A small group of friends and family were allowed to attend the tournament to get a first, in-person look at the Coach Pitino-led Gaels.
Ultimately, it was Iona that defended its MAAC Tournament Championship for
an unprecedented fifth straight time to earn a berth in the Big Dance. Although defeated by Alabama in the final minutes of the game, Iona didn’t miss a beat, and the preparation began right away for the upcoming season. Losing two of its top scorers to graduation in Asante Gist and Isaiah Ross, Iona has reloaded with several talented recruits. The season will feature an enhanced non-conference schedule. The slate features games at Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center and an appearance in the ESPN Events Invitational at Walt Disney World, in addition to several home contests.
It was a start that he couldn’t have imagined, but Pitino’s first year at Iona was a tumultuous success. In addition to leading men’s basketball to another victory, Pitino spearheaded a fundraising effort that, combined with funds raised before his arrival, enabled Iona to renovate its varsity student-athlete and student weight rooms, the campus cardio room, the men’s and women’s basketball locker rooms and the second-floor office space in Hynes East. Work began in the summer of 2020 and concluded this spring. The improvements in each area will prove vital to the success of the Iona athletics program.
Pitino’s first season with the Gaels was rocked with highs and lows. But with the passion, hunger and drive that now defines them, the future is sure to be bright as Pitino continues to lead the Gaels on the court to fight the good fight.