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Gophers AD Mark Coyle: 'I've told (Pitino) I want to talk about his contract'

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino watches his team practice for their first round game of the NCAA Tournament at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wis., on March 15, 2017. Benny Sieu / USA TODAY Sports

MILWAUKEE — Mark Coyle is in the midst of one of his busiest stretches as athletics director at the University of Minnesota, traveling Friday from Milwaukee, where the men's basketball season came to an end Thursday, to St. Charles, Mo., to watch the women's hockey team in the Frozen Four.

But as the AD approaches his one-year anniversary with the Gophers, he still made time to sit down with the Pioneer Press to discuss the state of the men's basketball program, which lost to Middle Tennessee Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament — its trip to the Big Dance in four years and first under coach Richard Pitino.

Last year, the Gophers were a program in disarray. Off the court, senior guard Carlos Morris was kicked off the team, and Pitino suspended four players — three because of a sex video released briefly to social media, and one after he was arrested on suspicion of criminal sexual conduct.

On the court, the Gophers lost a school-record 23 games.

This year, Pitino was named Big Ten coach of the year after guiding the Gophers to a 24-9 regular-season record. Point guard Nate Mason was first-team all-conference, and Amir Coffey made the all-freshman team. Pitino is signed through 2021 with a salary worth approximately $1.6 million annually in base salary and supplemental income.

Here's an edited transcript of Coyle's interview:

Pioneer Press: You got this job last May and inherited a basketball team that had gone 8-23. Why did you decide to keep Richard Pitino?

Mark Coyle: I had a chance to meet Richard the day after my first press conference. We had never met each other, even though we had a lot of similarities in our past schools that we had been a part of. ... I told Richard the same thing I told all of our coaches: "It's my job to do everything I can to help you compete at a high level." I promise, nobody wants to win more than Coach Pitino and his staff. In the summer, they did a lot of self-reflection, and brought in a lot of speakers. They looked in the mirror at what happened last year and they were determined to not let that happen again. That's why I'm excited that their hard work and commitment to the process has paid off.

PP: Last year, they had issues off the court as well as on it. How important was it for them to improve their standing away from the basketball court?

MC: There's no doubt that when things are going well in the classroom and socially, participating in sports is the fun part, the easy part. When you have stresses outside of that, it leads to not good things happening for your program. ... What Coach Pitino and that team went through last summer through that self-reflection, and not pointing the finger at anyone else, they committed themselves to not being in that situation again and it has paid off.

PP: What was your first few meeting with Richard like?

MC: I really enjoy spending time with Richard. He sees the big picture, and I think that's a big part of being a successful head coach. Obviously, he acknowledged that last year wasn't what they wanted, but he felt very calm and confident that the pieces of the puzzle were coming together and (that) he was getting the right people — changing the program the way he wanted to change it. He talked about how his first two years were going to be kind of steady, year three was going to be a dip, then it would start to go again. He was prepared and well thought out. That's what came to me. When I really got to know Richard was on our Gopher road trip a few weeks after that. It's not easy to stand up in front of our fans across the state when you have other coaches talk about going to the Final Four and winning national championships, and Richard has to stand up there and say, 'Hey we didn't do what we wanted to do.' How he handled that really impressed me. I've enjoyed working with Richard, and I look forward to working with him for a long time because I think he and I have a lot in common in how we think and how we want to do things.

PP: What has been the most impressive part of the basketball team's turnaround to you?

MC: You'll hear me talk a lot about low ego, high output. I love humility. I think that is a great characteristic for anybody to have. This team has responded the way they have without an ounce of arrogance. They don't pound their chests and scream from the rooftops, 'Hey look at us, we proved everybody wrong.' I really like the demeanor of the team, and I'm very proud of how our student-athletes have responded. I'm very proud of how Richard has responded. We talk all the time that we have to earn people back. They did that. I'm just really appreciative of how they kept a business-like approach and enjoyed every moment but haven't gloated once about the turnaround, and I really appreciate that.

PP: You mention earning people back. At the beginning of the season, attendance at home games wasn't very high. Were you worried fans might not come back?

MC: I only just finished my fifth year being an AD, but what I've learned is you can't control whether somebody buys a ticket or not. What you can control is your actions and how you do things. We talk a lot about earning people back. Our early games, when we didn't have the crowds that we were hoping for, we get that. We started to have success and created some credibility with people, and people started to show up, which was awesome.

PP: Did you have an idea that it was possible to reach the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed?

MC: At that time, no. When I sat down with Richard the first time, I was really impressed with how well thought out he was and how prepared he was looking at the big picture for the program. When he talked about going in the right direction, I believed him and felt like he was taking us in the right direction. I always tell people there's a reason why you play the games. For any of us to sit here and say we're going to be a 5 seed the following year, we probably all would have scratched our heads. But to give Richard credit, he believed in what he was doing, he believed in his coaching staff and his students and the results have paid off.

PP: Will you re-evaluate his contract this offseason?

MC: I don't mean to be flippant, but we're all being evaluated every day. Obviously, I evaluate Richard every day. Richard has a contract that was done prior to my arrival. I've told Richard that I want to sit down and talk about his contract and take a look at that. We'll have those conversations. The most important thing I want for our program is I want good people. I'm a big believer that if people are excited and happy and energetic, they're going to perform better in their jobs whether you're a school teacher, a doctor, a basketball coach, whatever that is. I want to make sure that Richard is comfortable with where we're at and where we're going. I look forward to having those continued conversations with him about his contract.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.