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Richard Pitino looks to friend Mark Few for inspiration as he rebuilds New Mexico

Pitino got Mark Few’s stamp of approval on the New Mexico job

Photo credit: Mike Sandoval

Mark Few is living Richard Pitino’s dream.

“Everyone has this dream of being a mid-major that turns into this dominant program like Gonzaga has done,” said Pitino, the newly hired New Mexico coach.

The school in the small city of Spokane is most certainly a powerhouse now. Few’s Bulldogs were only one win away from a blemish-free season and lifting the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball championship trophy. Meanwhile, Pitino is taking over a program that only won six games in 2020-21.

When Pitino’s name was floating around as a potential candidate for the New Mexico job, Few gave him a call and told him he should seriously consider it because New Mexico seems like a place where he can control his own destiny.

Pitino said they had talked a lot over the last couple years about the difficulties he faced as the head coach at Minnesota, a job he got fired from on March 15 — less than 24 hours before getting hired at UNM. Pitino spent eight years with the Golden Gophers and, although he has a lot of great memories, he admitted the job was challenging.

That’s not to say coaching the Lobos will be a walk in the park, but Few helped Pitino increase his confidence when it came to accepting the new opportunity.

Photo credit: Mike Sandoval

“He kind of put his stamp of approval on it,” Pitino said. “That meant a lot to me because he’s had a lot of opportunities to leave Gonzaga, and he’s passed them up because Gonzaga was special to him. Hopefully New Mexico will become special to me. I’ve already felt a great connection to it over the last month.”

The Lobos have a long way to go before they reach the same level as Gonzaga, but Pitino does see some similarities between the two programs. One of those, he said, is being located in cities with fans who are hungry for basketball.

In the end, the formula is simple: more wins equals more support and money, which helps to earn even more wins.

The support from their administration and community has grown for the Bulldogs as they continue to succeed. They’ve now reached the NCAA Tournament 22 consecutive times and just completed their fifth-straight 30-win season.

New Mexico has had a total of 15 NCAA Tournament appearances and only made it as far as the Sweet 16 twice (1968, 1974). The last time the Lobos went dancing was in 2014 when they won their third consecutive Mountain West conference tournament championship. Pitino said he needs to get fans excited again because he truly believes The Pit can give New Mexico one the best home court advantages in the nation.

While he is not trying to copy everything Few is doing, Pitino is definitely studying the Gonzaga blueprint. When it comes to the roster, he said he wants to embrace a culture of player development, which is something the Bulldogs are known for.

And of course, one cannot study Gonzaga without paying close attention to the offense.

“You’ll see a lot of programs when the opponent scores, the point guard looks over to the bench like, ‘What am I running?’ The coach might have a board or call the play and it slows down. Gonzaga never does that.” Pitino said. “It’s a fun offensive style of basketball. That’s my desire, to get to that kind of offensive scheme.”

He admits it’s going to take some time to build a team that can play with a similar pace and with the offensive freedom that comes from a high basketball IQ, but Pitino has been picking Few’s brain for a while now.

They met by casually running into each other throughout the years and had lots to talk about immediately due to mutual acquaintances. Billy Donovan is one of Few’s closest friends, and he is also one of Pitino’s biggest mentors (along with his father, Rick Pitino).

Pitino and Few’s friendship developed more in 2013 at the Maui Invitational. One day, after both of their teams had played, they got together and had a beer at a little gazebo overlooking the water.

They’ve continue hanging out when their recruiting schedules happened to match. Few spent a decent amount of time in Minnesota when watching Jalen Suggs, who became Gonzaga’s highest ranked recruit ever as the ESPN No. 6 prospect in the Class of 2020.

“We’ve sat together many times on the road recruiting,” Pitino said. ”He’s done a much better job recently recruiting Minnesota than me.”

NCAA Basketball: Pacific at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

While Few does play a mentor role in his life, Pitino first and foremost considers him a good friend. He said he truly appreciated that Few took the time to give him career advice in the middle of trying to achieve a perfect season for Gonzaga.

“It means a lot to me because it means he’s a good friend,” Pitino said. “The fact that he took the time out of his day to think about that meant a lot.”

The 2020-21 Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year is looking like a Hall of Famer, but Pitino said anyone who meets Few can see he is just a regular guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The two of them talk a lot of basketball, but they also help each other scout their next favorite TV shows. They are both fans of Yellowstone and The Queen’s Gambit.

“We binge watch tv shows on Netflix like everybody else.” Pitino said. “I would say I’m more well-versed on it than he is.”

But Pitino hasn’t had as much time to watch anything in the last few weeks. He’s been busy moving, finalizing his coaching staff and working on next season’s roster. He knows right now it’s all about setting a good foundation. During his introductory press conference, Pitino said he was ready to embrace all New Mexico traditions, including wearing the famous cherry blazer.

Few is someone he can lean on, but Pitino said he’s also gotten a lot of support from other coaches and even his former athletic director.

Minnesota AD Mark Coyle was at Boise State for three and a half years and knew a lot about the Lobos through the Mountain West Conference. Coyle told Pitino all about the environment Lobo fans create every March at the Mountain West Tournament at the Thomas and Mack Center, which they refer to as “Pit West.” This got Pitino every more excited.

A lot of coaches from the west region have been telling him that New Mexico is a “sleeping giant,” including UCLA head coach Mick Cronin. Pitino said Cronin was in the middle of his Final Four run but still made time to call him every day to tell him to not “do anything stupid and sit out a year” because the New Mexico job was going to be special.

With so much support from people he looks up to and who know about the program, Pitino couldn’t say no.

“All of them told me I better jump at this thing, and I trusted them,” Pitino said. “I’ve been here about five, six weeks. I know what ‘special’ looks like and feels like, and New Mexico has that.”