Rick Pitino in the end will be remembered as a great coach who resurrected two programs. But the scandal at Louisville was too much to ignore.
SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken goes inside the scandal that has rocked the sports world and the ripple effect it will have on college basketball and Rick Pitino’s legacy.
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You’ve gotta hand it to Rick Pitino: It’s impressive he survived this long.
Not too many coaches could survive not one, but two, sex scandals, but that’s how it works when you’re one of the best basketball minds in the game. Pitino resurrected two programs in the basketball crazy state of Kentucky, leading both the Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals to NCAA titles. And now he’ll depart in the midst of one of the biggest scandals in college sports history, a black mark on a sterling career.
But will it really ruin his legacy? Perhaps not.
Pitino, one of the highest-paid coaches in college basketball, is out after 16 years at Louisville — officially on unpaid administrative leave but “effectively fired” in the words of his attorney — brought down by the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York and the FBI as a scandal exploded Tuesday morning where 10 men were indicted on charges of fraud, bribery, money laundering and corruption. And we can all agree this is just the beginning of what is sure to be a long, drawn-out process. I’m not sure the FBI truly realizes how many shady characters are floating around AAU tournaments.
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Pitino, in keeping with the theme of his Louisville tenure, played dumb of course. After the FBI warned coaches and anyone else involved in these type of business dealings that “we have your playbook,” Pitino issued a statement through his lawyer that “the allegations come as a complete shock to me.”
For someone so successful, he sure seems OK with being portrayed as clueless. Just a couple of years ago, when news broke that Louisville had provided prostitutes for players and recruits, Pitino again claimed ignorance. Then Louisville fought back and said that really, the prostitutes didn’t help them land that great of recruits anyway. That anyone felt comfortable packing their teenage son off to play for this guy, someone who clearly had no integrity, is beyond me. But hey, he wins, and that’s what matters in our society.
Only now, it’s the FBI that has the better game plan. Coaches and administrators have never really been scared of the NCAA, but it’s likely many of them will sing like canaries when the FBI and IRS get involved, because prison time makes you re-think loyalty.
Everyone has believed for decades that money has been exchanged between big-time prospects and big-time schools that want them in uniform. And for just as long, many people turned their heads, content to exploit talented teenagers and their families.
Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, who has also been removed, reportedly told his superiors he did nothing wrong, and refused to resign. That’s just as comical as Pitino claiming, again and again, that he had no idea what was going on in his own program.
University of Louisville interim president Greg Postel addressed the media to discuss the fate of Rick Pitino and AD Tom Jurich.
USA TODAY Sports
Louisville interim President Greg Postel said Wednesday at a news conference that he was more “angry than embarrassed” at the news, and that he felt Louisville was on a “trajectory that was positive.” Did everyone else forget that Pitino was already suspended for the first five games of ACC play this year because of the prostitution scandal? And that wins, including the 2013 title, might have to be vacated? Good grief. In truth, the embarrassment ship for Louisville athletics sailed a long time ago. Fan bases will put up with a lot of it means you can hang championship banners.
Before anyone dances on Pitino’s grave, just remember: What Louisville did in paying players is hardly original. The FBI might be surprised to discover people prey on athletes with tremendous athletic talent, but anyone who’s covered or watched college sports is not.
The irony, of course, is that Pitino had to restore Kentucky because it suffered from a massive recruiting scandal of its own under previous coach Eddie Sutton. Louisville will be looking at a similar situation, just as soon as the NCAA catches up and levies what are sure to be major sanctions against the program. In the meantime, remember that Pitino’s basketball brilliance is close to unmatched in hoops, and that counts for something.
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Say what you what about Pitino — and a lot of the criticism about how he conducted himself is justifiable — but he is a terrific coach. He is a master tactician, an old-fashioned coach who prides himself on a defensive-first mentality. The Cards, people like to say, know how to guard. And that’s why I’m confident he’ll land on his feet. Supposedly the NBA is not interested, but presumably that’s when Pitino was looking for a head coaching job. There’s nothing like getting on the unemployment list to humble a person and make them suddenly more willing to take a less-than-glamorous position.
Once the scandal settles down — and we are a long way from that point, because the IRS isn’t even publicly involved yet — I’m sure Pitino will pop up on a sideline somewhere. If not the NBA, then maybe the D-league. And if that doesn’t work, basketball is played around the world and many teams would love to announce they’re bringing in a two-time championship coach.
In the end, his legacy won’t be that tainted, because so many coaches and schools have been paying players, in one way or another, for so many years. Pitino will not be the only coach to be shown the door in this disaster, he’s just the first. And because we already knew that he didn’t come close to a squeaky clean image, this really won’t change how people feel about him.
Gallery: Rick Pitino through the years
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