The hammer finally dropped on Rick Pitino, the University of Louisville Cardinals’ scandal-marred men’s basketball head coach. A sordid public airing of an extramarital affair and a four-year stretch in which prostitutes were hired to lure prize high school recruits couldn’t remove him from his perch. But the ongoing college basketball pay-for-play scandal finally did, a third moment of public infamy which puts all his on-court successes into question, particularly when he can’t and won’t admit any guilt.
On Wednesday, Louisville President Gregory Postel announced that he had been placed on unpaid administrative leave, effective immediately. While technically he wasn’t fired, per ESPN’s Darren Rovell, it’s just a question of dotting a few procedural i’s to avoid gifting Pitino a massive payout. The pink slip is coming, likely in October. The same goes for director of athletics, Tom Jurich, who was placed on paid administrative leave, reportedly thanks to his loyalty to Pitino.
The decision follows hard upon Tuesday’s revelations that multiple college coaches, financial advisors, and apparel company representatives paid out bribes to ensure that players went to the schools, managers and sneaker brands of their choosing, an airing of college sports’ ongoing and omnipresent black market and a damning indictment of “amateurism” itself.
While Louisville is never specifically cited in the entire 200-page charging document made public by investigators, it didn’t take long for reporters to connect the dots and finger Louisville as being the unnamed “University-6.” (Louisville confirmed it on Tuesday.)
The feds allege that the family of Louisville commit Brian Bowen, a highly-touted recruit, would have been funneled $100,000 by Adidas reps James Gatto and Merl Code, ex-player agent Christian Dawkins, and financial adviser Munish Sood. The university announced that Bowen had been suspended during today’s press conference, which is really something. A kid is being punished for something individuals allegedly working on Louisville’s behalf did.
Regardless, Bowen did eventually agree to play for Pitino, who at the time seemed shocked that he chose to do so. “In my 40 years of coaching this is the luckiest I've been," he said.
Evidently, it had nothing to do with luck.
This is the same Rick Pitino who previously bemoaned the influence that sneaker companies have on college sports. “What I personally don't like is I can't recruit a kid because he wears Nike on the AAU circuit," he said. "I had never heard of such a thing and it's happening in our world.”
If Pitino’s college career is over and his professional obituary is to be written, yes, it’ll include three trips to the Final Four with three different schools, multiple conference regular and postseason titles, and 53 wins in the NCAA Tournament. The wins are all his to keep. But the scandals, and his inability to accept responsibility should not be omitted.
Back in 2003, the married Pitino was embroiled in a messy affair with his then-mistress, Karen Cunagin Sypher. He admitted that he had consensual sex with her at an Italian restaurant in Louisville, an encounter that, “took less than 15 seconds,” Pitino said, and paid her $3,000 to cover the costs of an abortion. But in 2009, Sypher went public, claiming that Pitino had sexually assaulted her and offered her millions in bribes in exchange for her silence. In the ensuing trial, Sypher was found guilty of extortion.
While the affair proved embarrassing for Pitino, to say the least, and was certainly a terrible ordeal for his family, it wasn’t a reflection of the corruption that is the very lifeblood of college sports, or in any way suggested that a pattern of questionable personal behavior that might creep into his work.
It did. From 2010 to 2014 a Louisville staffer worked with Katina Powell, a madam to bring sex workers, at least one of which was allegedly underaged, and strippers on campus, with the hope that the romps would entice prize recruits to play for Pitino. Powell spilled the dirt in tell-all book published in 2015, in which she explained that she did so both because it was a profitable enterprise, but also because she herself was a devoted Louisville basketball fan.
Pitino denied everything. He questioned Powell’s credibility, insulted her intelligence, lambasted reporters for giving her the time of day, and swore by all that was holy and good that there’s no way any of the things she alleged could be true.
Even if they were true, he wasn’t to blame. Why? His staffers, coaches, and underlings would have kept this dirty laundry hidden from him, because if he found out, Pitino would have gotten really, really angry. “The reason that nobody saw anything is they knew all hell would break loose if I found out one single thing was going on," Pitino said. He’d later go on to invoke 9/11 when discussing the allegations, which is oddly a go-to anecdote for Pitino when dealing with an uncomfortable situation, appropriate or not.
Still, Pitino got off the hook and Louisville kept him around. The NCAA opened an investigation, one that eventually wiped away every win from 2010 to 2014, including the Cardinals’ 2013 national championship, put them on probation for the next four years, and suspended him for the first five games of the 2017-18 season. (The NCAA ruled that Pitino wasn’t aware of the sexual hijinks, but he really should have known and/or willfully turned a blind eye.) Pitino offered a few non-committal expressions of “remorse” but refused to accept any personal blame, calling the ruling, “Over the top.”
As to how Pitino slipped the noose for so long, according to SB Nation College Basketball Editor Ricky O’Donnell, Pitino has created a fiefdom at Louisville in which he’s “bullet-proof.” The most obvious shield is the winning program he’s built, including seven trips to the NCAA tournament over the course of the last 16 years at Louisville, but of equal importance is his ability to find the right allies. In this case, Jurich, who Pitino reportedly took down with him.
“Jurich wouldn't even fire him after the program's involvement in the latest FBI scandal, instead choosing to lose his own job,” O’Donnell said via direct message. “When you have that type of support from your boss, it's hard to lose your job.”
O’Donnell also cited Pitino’s ability to land highly ranked high school prospects, which, given the means with which at least one inked a letter of intent, should definitely cause an eyebrow or two to be raised. But in the end, “Louisville sports are a big money proposition with a fervent fanbase,” he said. “The athletic department wants to win. With Pitino, they could. More than anything, that's why he stayed employed for so long.”
What now for Pitino? He’s always wanted to claw his way back to the NBA and erase the stench of his unsuccessful stint running the Boston Celtics, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, that option isn’t available (for now). It’s doubtful any other major program will touch him, but given college sports’ pervasive willingness to give a winning coach a second chance, it’s not out of the question.
Take Art Briles, who was fired for allegedly covering up or ignoring multiple cases of sexual assault while serving as Baylor’s head football coach, and yet was offered a gig in Canada mere months after he was canned. Or Baylor’s equally disgraced former basketball coach, Dave Bliss, who similarly landed four coaching jobs even though he falsely attempted to pin a player’s death on a drug dealer to conceal payoffs he’d received.
And Bobby Knight, who also was sent packing after multiple scandals, still has managed to find work over the years as a TV analyst and occasional Trump hype man. Given Pitino’s gift of gab, yakking for some sports network might prove to be his final landing spot. After all, college sports—and sports fans—will always find a way to conveniently forget any messy details, as long as the wins keep rolling in.