By Nathan Keil | Sports Editor
Rick Pitino, men’s basketball head coach at the University of Louisville, can’t seem to stay out of his own way.
The Hall of Fame and two time National Championship winning coach was placed on administrative leave without pay following an FBI probe that officially charged 10 people in conjunction with a corruption and fraud scheme.
In the probe, Pitino and the Cardinals were implicated for paying a recruit $100,000 to come to Louisville, a school that also has a shoe deal with Adidas.
Athletic director Tom Jurich was put on paid leave, but Pitino’s leave is believed to be temporary based on a technicality in his contract that calls for a 10-day written notice prior to his dismissal.
Assistant basketball coaches from four schools, Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans, Auburn’s Chuck Person, Arizona’s Emmanuel Richardson and USC’s Tony Bland, as well as six others, including James Gatto, the director of global sports marketing for basketball at Adidas have been charged in the scheme that is shaking up college basketball.
If Pitino truly cares for the university, for his players and for his family, he should wave the white flag; he should admit he threw his ethical and coaching integrity out the window a long time ago. He can’t stop the ramifications that are coming Louisville’s way, the same way former Baylor head football coach Art Briles couldn’t stop them at Baylor. Saving his job can’t save his reputation. With some honesty, he can at least disappear from college basketball with a clear conscience.
This isn’t Pitino’s first involvement in a scandal. In fact, his name ought to be synonymous with scandal, dating back to 1989 when he took over at the University of Kentucky. When he accepted the position, the Wildcats were banned from the NCAA tournament for two years and from being broadcasted on national television for one year as a result of recruiting and academic rules violations. In 1996, the program was back at the top of the college world having won its first national championship in 18 years, after which Pitino went to the NBA to be head coach of the Boston Celtics.
In 2001, he left the NBA and returned to the state of Kentucky, this time to the University of Louisville. Twelve years later, he cut down the nets with an 82-76 victory over Michigan to claim his second career national title.
This was the pinnacle of his tenure at Louisville, but it didn’t come without a cost. In 2009, Pitino was involved in a sex and extortion scandal with Karen Sypher. Pitino admitted to stepping outside his marriage, but as Sypher demanded money and cars from Pitino, she was sentenced to seven years in prison. Louisville decided that winning took precedent over Pitino’s sexual delinquency.
In 2015, a former escort Katrina Powell in a book entitled Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen released details surrounding former Cardinals graduate assistant Andre McGee hiring escorts to throw parties and have sex with potential recruits.
Pitino denied having any knowledge of parties and illicit activities at the time. And he denies having any involvement in the scandal that has officially given college basketball and the University of Louisville yet another black eye.
After its investigation into the 2015 scandal, the NCAA suspended Pitino the first five conference games this season, put the Cardinals on probation for four years, ended McGee’s coaching career and have threatened to make Louisville vacate its 2013 title.
Louisville sold its soul to support its coach and bask in championship glory, even if it meant selling sex for potential wins. Now it will probably lose both, not to mention what other penalties could be heading its way from the NCAA.
Despite muddying Louisville’s name and his own name through his decrepit moral behavior, Pitino still doesn’t get it and he probably never will.
In a statement released on Friday, Pitino maintained his innocence, further illuminating his stubbornness to accept any kind of responsibility for his actions.
“As I’ve previously stated, I had no knowledge of any payments to any recruit or their family,” Pittino said in the statement. “But I was the head coach and I will take ownership of my decisions. The University took the action they thought was necessary and I will do the same.”
Pitino is well within his rights to legally battle the allegations against him and fight for his coaching job. But the evidence is overwhelming and having tip-toed around losing his job in the past, it’s time to cut the losses.
Pitino is following in the footsteps of Briles, who lost his job amidst a sexual assault scandal involving numerous football players. Briles told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi that he “made mistakes and did wrong” and that he was going to learn and “do better.”
Was this apology sincere? Only Briles himself knows, but it didn’t stop him from seeking employment, including being linked to Auburn University, the Cleveland Browns and the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Briles seems determined to coach in some capacity again. Pitino’s insistent denial of involvement indicates that he will do the same. Baylor has not healed and will, understandably, be nursing its wounds for years to come. Louisville appears to be next in the long list of programs tainted by the decisions of their leadership.
Pitino has done the wrong thing enough in his career, it will not right any of his previous wrongs, but he should take this opportunity to lead by example and step away from the program and the game for good.