Broken relationship: What went wrong between Virtus Bologna and Sergio Scariolo

Orazio Cauchi
Staff Writer
2023-09-15 16:30

On Friday morning, Virtus Bologna fired Sergio Scariolo, ending a two-year relationship. BasketNews takes you inside the last tumultuous hours of the broken marriage between the two sides. What led to the breakup? What's going to happen next? 


In about a week, Virtus Bologna will officially start their new season by playing in the semifinal of the Italian SuperCup against Olimpia Milan in what will be a replay of last season's Italian league finals.

On the bench, though, there won't be Sergio Scariolo anymore. On Friday morning, Virtus Bologna decided to fire the Italian head coach, leaving a certain level of disbelief in many basketball fans.

But the relationship between Sergio Scariolo and the Italian club had been troubled for quite some time now and the end of it wasn't that surprising after all.

Sure, the timing is odd. But this is not the first time that Virtus Bologna, under Massimo Zanetti's ownership, has decided to take a strong stand against their own head coach.

But for those who are still confused about Virtus' decision to fire one of the best coaches around, let's try to dig deep and analyze what happened in the last 48 hours. What was the process that led Virtus to fire Scariolo? What's gonna happen now? 

In June, Virtus lost the Italian league finals against Olimpia Milan after seven extremely intense games. Those finals were characterized by several rumors outside the court that left both teams agitated.

Milan had to deal with the rumors about a deal in place for Nikola Mirotic, probably the transfer market news of the summer, while Virtus were dealing with the rumors about the future of coach Scariolo.

The Italian head coach, in fact, was one of the main candidates for the head coaching job of the Toronto Raptors and had at least one Zoom meeting with the NBA franchise during the finals, sources told BasketNews.

After Game 2 of the finals in Milan, there was an altercation between a couple of Virtus Bologna players and some Olimpia Milan's fans. The overall atmosphere was far from serene.

After losing in the finals and in the midst of many rumors about his future, at the end of June, Scariolo gave a press conference to provide some clarity. The head coach of the Spanish NT made it clear that he was going to stay in Bologna until the end of his contract and that, despite the rumors, he felt like Bologna was the right place for him.

But Scariolo also told reporters that the situation of the team was going to be very different as the club had decided to reduce the budget for the upcoming season. 

"The club made it very clear to me that the conditions are going to be different and that the budget is going to be reduced", Scariolo said back in June.

"Don't ask me the specific numbers, but I said to the management that I appreciated the clarity regarding this scenario. I also informed the club that I'd be willing to extend my contract if the right conditions were in place".

Due to the Financial Fair Play imposed by the EuroLeague and in order to receive the wild card to keep playing in the competition, Virtus were pretty much forced to reduce their budget. In order to contain the costs, the Italian side let Milos Teodosic, Nico Mannion, and Mouhammadou Jaiteh leave after the end of their contracts.

Semi Ojeleye, who had another year left on his deal with the club, joined Valencia after the Spanish side decided to pay around 300,000 to free him from Virtus.

Also, Ismael Bako left Virtus after UNICS Kazan paid a €180,000 buyout to acquire the Belgian big man. Marco Belinelli signed a new contract extension at a lower salary compared to the previous one.

Overall, Virtus Bologna saved around €6 million, sources told BasketNews, and the estimated budget for the upcoming season will be around €17 million.

After the words used by Scariolo in the press conference in June, the club remained silent for the majority of the summer. Only in August, Luca Baraldi, the CEO of Virtus Bologna, gave his own assessment of the budget of the team in an interview with a local radio.

"I would like to reassure the fans, because, after the press conference in June, a lot of concern was raised regarding the situation of our budget", Baraldi said during the interview.

"We had to make certain changes because of EuroLeague and their FFP rules, and to receive the wild card we had to respect certain parameters. But a very solid entrepreneur like Carlo Ghirardi decided to acquire 40% of the shares of the club, while the remaining 60% is still in the hands of Mr. Zanetti. I think we have built a team that is compatible with our ideas and that's going to be important also for the future". 

But with coach Scariolo being busy in the FIBA World Cup with Spain, it didn't look like the decisions in terms of the roster were all that shared.

On Wednesday, September 13, Scariolo had his introductory press conference with the Italian reporters, and his words created immediately some headlines. The Italian coach told the journalists in the room that pretty much every decision in terms of the roster was made by the club and that he didn't want to talk about goals for the upcoming season because those are set by the management. 

"Goals and philosophy for this season? That's a question for the management. The club built this team and they gave it to me. It's the management that built this roster and we should give them the necessary credit for doing the best within the resources available", Scariolo explained during the press conference.

The head coach also specified that the decision to keep Iffe Lundberg out of the roster was also made by the management. 

"The club communicated that decision to the player's entourage. Now we'll see what's going to happen in the next few days. Iffe is currently not a part of the first team's roster," Scariolo pointed out. 

Many Virtus fans were taken aback by Scariolo's words. The terms used by the coach gave the impression of someone who was not exactly enthusiastic about the season that was about to begin and who had quite a few doubts about the real quality of the roster.

Within the next 48 hours, Sergio Scariolo's fate was definitely sealed. On Thursday, Massimo Zanetti, the majority owner of Virtus, was on a rampage and ready to fire the coach for the way he had handled the press conference.

A source inside the club, who asked to remain anonymous due to the seriousness of the situation, told BasketNews that on Thursday pretty much everyone inside the team believed that Scariolo was going to be fired within a few hours.

"It was pretty clear that there was no future for the coach inside the club, everyone thought that it was over", the source told BasketNews.

On Friday morning, several newspapers in Italy reported that Virtus was considering firing coach Scariolo. But the general belief was that the Virtus' management, after a night of consideration, would hold on for a few extra days before taking any drastic decisions.

But the higher ranks of the club had no intention to wait because the relationship was completely broken.

Thus, by 11 a.m. on Friday morning, Virtus published a press release in which they announced the decision to relieve coach Scariolo of his duties.

In their statement, Virtus made it pretty clear that the press conferences held by Scariolo back in June and just a few days before played a huge part in their decision to fire him. 

"The coach's statements made to the press on September 13, 2023, which follow those made during the end-of-season press conference on June 27, 2023, unfortunately, undermine the serenity and enthusiasm of the Virtus' environment", the club stated.

In addition to Sergio Scariolo, Andrea Diana, his first assistant coach, was also dismissed. Virtus Bologna will be coached by assistant Alberto Seravalli during the next few days until there's a new head coach in place.

The official announcement of Scariolo's firing came just before the team was about to board the bus for the trip to Munich for the MagentaSport Cup, an exhibition tournament in which Virtus will face Bayern Munich, ALBA Berlin, and Crvena Zvezda. 

As things currently stand, Luca Banchi, who was recently named Best Coach of the FIBA World Cup, is considered to be the front-runner for the head coaching job, multiple sources have told BasketNews.

The former AEK Athens head coach immediately became a strong option for Virtus after the decision to fire Scariolo and if everything goes according to the plan, he should become the new head coach of the Italian side at the beginning of next week. 

Whichever way you try to look at this situation, it is hard not to point out a defeat of all parties involved. Virtus, now, is forced to find a new coach one week before the start of the new season.

The new coach will find himself in charge of a team that he has neither built nor thought out, and he will have very little time to work with it. Sergio Scariolo, after weeks of rumors linking him to the Toronto Raptors and Real Madrid, finds himself stranded, with very little chance of finding another EuroLeague job this season.

If the club did not already like the words used by the coach in June, right after the end of the season, why wait until September to make such a decision? This is not the first time the Virtus leadership has handled its coach's situation in a not-exactly flawless manner.

In December 2020, Virtus decided to fire Sasha Djordjevic after a series of discussions regarding the use of Marco Belinelli, who had just joined the Bologna team. Twenty-four hours after the decision to fire him, however, Virtus retraced its steps, reinstating the coach and his assistants.

However, the relationship with Djordjevic ended at the end of the 2020-2021 season, despite the fact that the Serbian coach won the Italian championship.

This whole affair certainly leaves questions about how it was handled by the Italian side. Virtus re-entered the European elite last season, returning to the EuroLeague after many years of absence.

But to be an elite team at the European level, the club from Bologna should be able to put aside personalism and ways of managing the club that recall a legacy that is still a bit too narrow-minded, in which the management necessarily wants to control aspects of decision-making and communication that would not necessarily belong to them.

In two seasons with Virtus, Scariolo always maintained the club at a really high level. He won a EuroCup, he reached the Italian league finals twice although he didn't win it, and he also lifted two Italian SuperCups.

The Italian coach has fulfilled the promises and expectations that were there for him when he arrived in Bologna. He has given a more international scope to the club, helping to expand its scouting structure.

The feeling, however, is that Virtus, on the other hand, has never fully guaranteed the level of autonomy and freedom of action that a coach like Sergio Scariolo needs.

The hope for the club is that certain mistakes in interpersonal relations can be avoided once the new coach sits on the bench. If not, we may find ourselves having the same conversations sooner rather than later. 



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