Update: Louisville has called a press conference for 1 p.m. Various sources are reporting that both Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich have been fired. More soon.
Not many schools would have kept Rick Pitino after he admitted to having sex in a restaurant with a woman he’d just met. (He would testify that the encounter lasted “no more than 15 seconds.”) He was technically the aggrieved party in an extortion case brought by the feds against the woman in question — Karen Sypher was convicted — but still: The most famous man in the commonwealth of Kentucky was humiliated by the experience.
Or should have been. But part of being Rick Pitino is being impervious to real shame. He kept on coaching Louisville after Sex In A Restaurant. More to the point, Louisville allowed him to keep coaching.
He won the 2013 NCAA championship, the title being taken in a dazzling display at the Georgia Dome. That was a happy crusade: The injured Kevin Ware hobbling about on crutches; the Final Four MVP being the sixth man and George Mason transfer Luke Hancock, an actual NCAA champ being built without benefit of a single one-and-done.
Barely two years later, Sex In A Restaurant had yielded to Strippers In The Dorm. Pitino’s defense: It was all the work of one rogue assistant. “I can’t find one person who knew a damn thing about it,” he said in a response to a question posed by yours truly after yet another narrow win over poor Brian Gregory at McCamish Pavilion. (But wasn’t he, you know, the head coach? Never mind.)
Full disclosure: There have been times when I could barely abide the man. When he was coaching Kentucky, I referred to him as “the egomaniac Rick Pitino.” (I’m told he read it and was not amused.) When he got the Louisville job, I mostly cringed — not because he was a bad coach but because I’d grown up a Louisville fan. (My dad graduated from U of L’s dental school.)
I’ve since softened toward him, not because he’s coaching the school for which I used to root but because Little Ricky seemed to have grown up. He used the word “humility” at the Final Four here, a word for which the younger Pitino had no use. He’d left Kentucky to take over the Celtics, where he failed for the first time in a golden career. His brother-in-law died on Sept. 11, 2001. (Indeed, the dorm in which the strippers danced is named for him — Billy Minardi Hall.) And the publicity stemming from Sex In A Restaurant had been no fun, even for the guy who never ducks a photo op.
I liked this Pitino more than I did the younger Pitino, which isn’t to say that his professed outrage over Strippers In The Dorm was convincing. Again: He was the head coach; it’s his program, and his program was so abashed — and Louisville, which also employs Bobby Petrino, isn’t easily abashed — that it removed its team from the 2015 postseason. It’s now on NCAA probation, and Pitino himself is due to serve a five-game suspension in the season ahead.
Provided he makes it that far. Louisville was implicated in the fraud/bribery case brought by the feds Tuesday. Pitino was not charged/arrested. No one who works at Louisville was, at least not yet. But the most jaw-dropping allegation of what could become a watershed moment for college basketball involved — yes, again — Pitino’s program.
According to the feds, representatives of Adidas — Louisville is an Adidas school — paid recruit Brian Bowen $100,000 to sign with the Cardinals and commit to wearing Adidas shoes as a professional. The Courier-Journal characterized Bowen’s June commitment as a “surprise.” Pitino said in a subsequent interview that Louisville “spent zero dollars recruiting a 5-star athlete … In my 40 years of coaching, this is the luckiest I’ve ever been.” (Famous last words?)
On cue, Pitino’s reaction to the charge plucked the customary strings. “These allegations come as a complete surprise to me,” he offered, which left us where we came in: Once again, we’re asked to believe that Pitino — masterful coach, control freak of long standing — knows nothing about anything bad.
We note again: Louisville is on probation. Its appeal to the NCAA to keep from having the 2013 NCAA title vacated is pending. There’s a chance — not a great one, given the NCAA’s dithering ways, but a chance — that this tent-pole program could face the death penalty. (Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports, who lives in Louisville, advocated as much.) And the Pitino response? “Don’t look at me, folks. I just work here.”
Late Tuesday, Terry Meiners of WHAS Radio tweeted: “Attorney (meaning Pitino’s) says facts are ugly but he promises ‘a bare-knuckle fight’ if U of L tries to fire Rick Pitino.”
Pitino turned 65 this month. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s the only coach to win championships at two schools. On the collegiate court, he has accomplished all there is to accomplish. And yet: His legacy (to use a word I loathe) lies in tatters. He could have been fired after Sex In A Restaurant. He should have been fired after Strippers In The Dorm. Unless these allegations are proved to be without substance — and it’s hard to imagine they will, given that the feds and confidential informers and undercover agents are involved — he has to go now.
The reason I used the word “egomaniac” to describe Pitino all those years ago was that he arrived in Lexington — full disclosure: I’m a UK grad and I worked at the Herald-Leader covering the Wildcats — acting as if he’d founded the program. Believe it or not, Kentucky was winning NCAA titles before he was born. Nor was Louisville an expansion team: Indeed, Denny Crum took twice as many national championships as Little Ricky has.
If Pitino tries to dig in his heels yet again, Louisville might well be dealt sanctions of the sort that raze a program. Alas, he never seems to grasp that there’s anything to a program beyond … well, him. Except when it comes to malfeasance. Then it’s never him.
This time it has to be him. This time, finally. For the good of his university, Rick Pitino must be the first to go.