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Richard Pitino's golden challenge

DULUTH, Minn. -- A trip to northeast Minnesota, via Interstate 35, reveals a world that's distinct and distant from the bustling corporate culture that dominates the Minneapolis-St. Paul scene.

Up here, clusters of sturdy spruce trees line rural roads like church pews. Small towns, such as Cloquet and Hinckley, rely on worn billboards to market their casinos, truck stops or antique shops. Nearby gas stations sell newspapers, live bait and "Duck Dynasty" hats.

And within this terrain, Richard Pitino must convince a segment of a starving fan base that he can transform the University of Minnesota's men's basketball program, the only Division I team in the state. He's clearly prepared for the day's task.

It's late June, and the 30-year-old coach from the East Coast works a conference room filled with Gophers fans like a seasoned politician. Pitino tells an elderly gentleman that he'd recruit him to play for the University of Minnesota only if he swapped his Steve Maddens for basketball shoes.

He takes pictures with little girls adorned in Minnesota-themed dresses. He raves about the support he has received since he accepted the gig in early April. He shakes hands and smiles. And he makes promises.

Promises they've all heard in the past.

Pitino's mission on this trek to Duluth -- a gorgeous city of 86,000 that rests of the edge of Lake Superior -- is to convince disappointed fans that a coach with one year of Division I head-coaching experience can transform a program that has been stale for nearly 20 years.

"I think 'frustrated' is the right word," said Pitino, who will make $1.2 million annually. "I think they all see what I see. They see this place is so great. They see how phenomenal the university is, how great the Twin Cities are, how much they care.

"I think they're frustrated. I think it certainly starts with players. We talk about so many things. In the end it comes down to players. We've got to kind of build our tradition. The good thing is there isn't apathy. I think where you struggle to build a program is where the people don't care."

A caravan in northern Minnesota

There's a traffic jam on East Superior Street. A country traffic jam.

Only six or seven cars are stuck behind the coach bus decorated in maroon and gold as it pulls up to Tycoons Alehouse and Eatery in downtown Duluth. About a dozen Minnesota coaches and staffers, including Pitino and athletic director Norwood Teague, are aboard.

Per a large sign, "urine cleaner" and other marijuana-related paraphernalia are available at the variety store adjacent to the pub. There's a hole-in-the-wall Chinese food joint on the same block and a dilapidated casino across the street.

The contrasting surroundings, compared to the Twin Cities, are evident as soon as Pitino steps onto the sidewalk. With his slick hair and creased Nike khakis, he's not subtle in Duluth -- the 15th stop on the 16-city "Gopher Road Trip: Chalk Talk" tour.

"It's just a chance to get out to out-state Minnesota, to meet our fans, show them that we appreciate them and to let them hear from our coaches," Teague said.

But the effort is more calculated than that, specifically for Pitino and Teague.

Pitino runs a program that hasn't tasted basketball glory since the late 1990s. But that period is bittersweet because the NCAA vacated the greatest triumphs of the Bobby Jackson Era, including a 1997 Final Four run and a Big Ten title, because of an academic scandal. Minnesota has won just one NCAA tournament game since that era.

The Gophers haven't won a conference championship that the NCAA still recognizes since 1982. The only noteworthy NBA player the program has produced in the past 10 years, Kris Humphries, is more famous for his brief marriage to reality TV star Kim Kardashian than his basketball exploits.

Pitino, who has been an assistant at Louisville and Florida, replaces Tubby Smith. Smith was fired in March after winning one NCAA tournament game in six seasons.

His successor's only head-coaching experience came last season in a one-year stint at Florida International. The Golden Panthers won 18 games under Pitino a year after earning just eight victories overall.

But he's in the Big Ten now. There's more pressure to win, something previous Gophers coaches could not do consistently in the league. Rebuilding, not winning, has been the recent tradition.

"It's all about potential, but we've never seen it materialize into anything like a Big Ten championship or an NCAA tournament run or a packed Barn after every game," said Nadine Babu, co-owner of the popular Gophers fan site, Gopherhole.com. "It's obviously unknown what he's going to be able to accomplish. People are excited to see what can happen."

Pitino woos any skeptics of his youth with his maturity and relaxed demeanor at this recent gathering of boosters.

The offseason event begins with team mascot Goldy Gopher twirling his top as gray-haired supporters chant "Spin your head! Spin your head! Spin your head!" Then, Mike Grimm, the team's play-by-play announcer, draws laughs as he knocks the program's chief rival during his introduction.

"The only downside about Duluth is you look across the way and see Wisconsin," Grimm says.

Men's hockey coach Don Lucia jokes about Pitino's transition to a colder climate. "He's moving up in the world," Lucia says. "He's gone from South Beach to Lake Superior."

And then the new men's basketball leader grabs the mike. He's not nervous or shaky. And if you close your eyes, you hear his father speaking. Same tone. Same pace. Same accent.

"It's going to take a little time," Pitino tells the group. "We've got to add some guys."

He explains his desire to run and press (Florida International was 48th in adjusted tempo per KenPom.com last year) in a league that has traditionally been recognized as a slower, grinding conference. He talks about the talent on the team now and the talent he desires.

Pitino discusses the need for stronger recruiting, which will demand more resources. Translation: "Fans, open your checkbooks and pull out your credit cards."

One supporter asks Pitino if he'll get a tattoo, something his father did after last season's national title run, to commemorate a Minnesota national championship. He'll outdo his father, Pitino says, by putting a Gopher on his back.

More laughter and applause.

"I think we were frustrated," said longtime season-ticket holder Terry Chmielewski, who attended the event. "This is a fresh start. Biggest thing for us was the energy [Pitino has] with recruiting. I don't think we've felt that before."

The feisty assistant turned head coach

Rick Pitino has won two national championships, and he's the only coach who has led three schools to the Final Four.

But Richard Pitino didn't care about those accolades when he coached under his father.

His competitive edge rivals his father's, so during the 2011-12 season, he had to speak up as Florida foiled Louisville's matchup zone and seized a 41-33 halftime advantage in the Elite Eight. He wanted his father to make a change. Actually, he demanded it.

"He wouldn't shut the hell up about it," Rick Pitino said. "He said, 'Dad, if you don't get the hell out of a zone, we're not going to the Final Four.'"

The profanity-laced exchange continued as father reminded son of his own achievements and his inexperience. But Richard Pitino was relentless.

"He told me, 'If you don't get out of this matchup zone, I'm going to kill you,'" Rick Pitino said. "I've never had any assistant go after me like that."

A few possessions into halftime, the head coach dropped the zone and the Cardinals won the game. That back-and-forth banter demonstrated the new Minnesota coach's audacity and confidence, but it also displayed his basketball acumen.

Pitino didn't take shortcuts when he was on his father's staff at Louisville or while he was working for his father's protégé, Billy Donovan, at Florida. He tried to outwork everyone else.

"He's so mature, well beyond his age," said Wyking Jones, a Louisville assistant. "We don't make it to the Final Four and win the Big East title [in 2012] without Richard Pitino."

Jones rarely saw Pitino without his iPad when the two coaches worked together at Louisville. He wasn't playing Doodle Jump, either. Pitino used the device to watch film. Hours and hours of film.

Everywhere he went -- breakfast, bus rides -- he carried it with him. It was his way of absorbing the game. As a result, Pitino is recognized as an elite basketball mind by those close to him.

Last season's Florida International squad lacked a multitude of high-level athletes, but its defense was ranked fifth nationally in turnover rate per Ken Pomeroy.

"He's as good an X's and O's guy as anyone in the business," Rick Pitino said. "He doesn't need coaching. He needs recruiting."

Pitino can't do it alone

Teague talked to multiple coaches who had worked with Pitino before he interviewed him a few months ago. The same athletic director who had hired Shaka Smart during his time at VCU wasn't concerned about his youth. Donovan's endorsement alleviated those concerns.

But Teague had to talk to Pitino. Once he did, however, it didn't take long to make a decision.

"I don't think it was an 'aha' moment. But when we first sat down, about 15 minutes in, I knew he was the guy," Teague said. "It was much like when I heard Shaka, where you say, 'Let's just stop this and get back to Minneapolis and have a press conference.' It's a gut feeling. Now granted, there's a lot that goes into the gut feeling. There's a lot of research, a lot of talking to other people about him."

Pitino acknowledges the challenge he has accepted. The Gophers have a strong backcourt, anchored by Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins, but not much else. Joe Coleman, who seemed perfect for the system, transferred to Saint Mary's this week. The team has only two legit centers, with Maurice Walker and Elliott Eliason.

And Pitino will attempt to implement a style that requires a rotation of eight or nine players to really flow. Depth is not the current roster's strength.

"We've got to now build a style of play, build a culture that these people want to come see and then, we've got to recruit our butt off," Pitino said. "That's extremely important."

Teague vows to help. Minnesota needs a practice facility yesterday. It's a must-have trinket for major programs now. College basketball is an arms race, and the Gophers are losing.

For years, the state's best preps have been poached by other programs within and outside the Big Ten. There's only a sliver of hope that local 2014 prospects Tyus Jones (No. 3 in ESPN's Top 100) and Rashad Vaughn (No. 11) will stay home.

That's a trend Pitino hopes to end, but that goal seems feasible only with an uptick in resources.

"We need to help him as far as building his budget, building a practice facility and doing some of the little things that make this program operate at a higher level," Teague said.

Pitino compares his plight to his father's situation at Louisville, a team that needed better facilities and more wins when he was hired in 2001. But Rick Pitino said his son faces a more difficult predicament.

"If I wanted a practice facility [at Louisville], I snap my fingers and I got it," Rick said. "[Minnesota] couldn't build a practice facility. That was Tubby's biggest problem."

Pitino is not worried, though. But he is realistic.

He doesn't make the job more complex than it has to be, but he doesn't oversimplify it, either. He wants to win. He expects to win. Soon. But not too soon.

"I sincerely believe that this place could be a national powerhouse, I really believe it," Pitino said. "You've got a great conference. You've got a great fan base. You've got people who care. With the help of them, we can get there."

Gophers fans wonder if Pitino will be the coach who finally turns "there" into "here."