CRAWFORD | What's at stake for Louisville's Pitino when he meets - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | What's at stake for Louisville's Pitino when he meets with the NCAA?

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Rick Pitino. (Associated Press photo by Timothy Easley). Rick Pitino. (Associated Press photo by Timothy Easley).

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Sometime in the not-too-distant future, if he hasn't already, University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino will meet with NCAA officials to discuss the allegations made against his program by former escort Katina Powell, and by an undetermined number of players who have corroborated parts of her story about providing strippers and escorts for players and recruits, and being paid by former director of basketball operations Andre McGee for the service.

To this point, the only people claiming that Pitino knew about any of those activities are those who have speculated that it would have been either impossible for him not to know, or that he did not know because the system was set up for him not to know.

But no evidence has been produced publicly that he knew, and there has been no report of any being produced privately, either through sources close to the investigation, or through various media investigations, including those by WDRB.

Powell's own attorney, Larry Wilder, has told WDRB, " I have no knowledge of any demonstrative evidence, any admissible evidence, any circumstantial evidence, that would cause me as a lawyer to believe that there is any ability to demonstrate that coach Rick Pitino had knowledge of what was gong on. I can say that without hesitation, having had benefit of all the information I have."

Still, the question of whether he knew or didn't know is only a part of the issue Pitino will be facing when he meets with NCAA investigators. He'll have a lot at stake during those discussions, not the least of which, from his standpoint, will be whether the NCAA hits him with a suspension of the kind it levied on Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim for an academic and recruiting scandal within his program.

No 'presumption of innocence'

The NCAA membership has changed the organization's rules to more strongly pin responsibility for wrongdoing in major athletic programs to the coaches who run them. While it does not create a situation of "strict liability," where just because violations occur head coaches are automatically found to be at fault, coaches nonetheless are presumed to be at fault once violations are determined.

When violations are found, and when it is determined that a member of the coaching or administrative staff is responsible for those violations, something changes for the head coach. He no longer has a presumption of innocence. The presumption automatically becomes that the coach did not foster a culture of NCAA compliance, and it is up to the coach to prove that he did. The NCAA calls that "rebutting the presumption."

It is what Boeheim failed to do during his interview with the NCAA. When he spoke to NCAA officials, Boeheim talked about taking part in NCAA rules meetings with Syracuse's compliance staff, and taking quizzes on the covered information. He talked about assigning two staff members as liaisons to the compliance office. He said his players attended bi-annual compliance meetings. And he hired a director of basketball operations to oversee some academic matters with the team.

The NCAA, however, found that while Boeheim put compliance measures into place, he didn't adequately follow up on them.

"In practice," the NCAA's report read, "the head basketball coach operated under assumptions and he neglected to inquire and monitor his staff and student-athletes."

Moreover, the NCAA rejected Boeheim's claim that he promoted a culture of compliance, and it did so with this paragraph that probably will reverberate through the Louisville investigation, and any investigation involving a coach, whether he knows of the alleged violating behavior or not.

The NCAA said Boeheim failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance because his "players and staff felt comfortable committing academic extra benefit and academic fraud violations. He shoulders the responsibility of those staff members and their involvement in these severe violations. In particular, the head basketball coach is responsible for the actions of the director of basketball operations, whom he specifically hired to handle academics."

Boeheim saw that he had some players players struggling academically. He hired a director of basketball operations to help with that. And that staff member subsequently broke NCAA rules.

He "initiated a well-intentioned solution," the NCAA public infractions report reads, "but he never verified that the solution operated within the bounds of NCAA legislation. (Boeheim) relied on the integrity of the director of basketball operations and assumed that his conduct abided by NCAA regulations. . . . When asked about his specific monitoring efforts of the director of basketball operations, the head basketball coach could not identify specific steps that he took to monitor the director of basketball operations. Rather, the head basketball coach indicated that the director of basketball operations knew the rules."

Making a rebuttal

Now, the allegations at Louisville are different. They don't involve academics, and their duration is not of the length of those at Syracuse. Still, the same principle will hold true. You have a coach, and you have a director of basketball operations who broke rules. Pitino will be held responsible for McGee's actions unless he can show a pattern of aggressively monitoring him and a clear pattern of McGee and others working to hide his actions. Pitino will have to come armed with documentation to rebut the presumption that he allowed a culture to exist where this kind of behavior could happen.

So what can Pitino do to answer such a high standard?

The NCAA has clearly designated steps a coach must take. Pitino will have to document that he clearly laid out compliance expectations to staff and players. He will have to document any discipline he handed out for smaller violations. He'll need to come armed with written policies for dealing with what the NCAA calls "elite athlete issues," such things as agents, boosters, amateurism, and other areas where the elite athlete can run aground of NCAA rules.

Pitino will have to demonstrate that he conducted a hands-on approach that included frequent spot checks into compliance issues, including documenting any instances in which he spotted a red flag and followed up to correct the issue. He'll also have to demonstrate that he was open to feedback to determine if the monitoring systems were working correctly.

Coaches are expected to avoid a situation in which a conflict arises between winning and following the rules, and Pitino will have to document that such was not the case within his program.

The NCAA also will look at how Pitino reacted to past violations within the program, including how he followed up with staff to address and correct any issues that arose, and how quickly they were brought to the NCAA.

He should be able to demonstrate that there was an explicit expectation that anyone coming forward to report a violation would not face retribution. And then comes the regular compliance education and communication with compliance staff that Boeheim spoke of during his NCAA interviews.

So, what will Pitino's case be? We have no way of knowing whether all those hurdles can be crossed, and whether the proper documentation exists. Making sure Pitino has answers to those points is part of what U of L's Chuck Smrt has presumably been working on, and what university attorneys and Pitino's own counsel will need to help him deal with.

The fear factor

There are a few mitigating factors that might well help the coach. First, his insistence all along has been that players feared his punishment to the point that they were afraid to tell him this kind of thing was going on. In other words, he could say, "I was so adamant about the rules that my players feared telling me some were not following them." You could call it a "fear factor" defense.

"I punished guys for getting their phones out at the wrong times and being late to meetings," Pitino said in January. "Had I found out something like this, they knew there would have been all hell to pay."

Still, the NCAA may see little virtue in that, as it could be interpreted as the other end of an extreme. Whether by fear or apathy, the bottom line still was an atmosphere in which violations could exist and not be reported. It's one reason that U of L attorneys probably didn't approve of that particular line of self-defense from Pitino.

More effective, perhaps, would be the argument that the players and staff member involved went to great lengths to cover up their actions. There were no pictures. There was no social media chatter.

When the NCAA determines whether a school demonstrated a lack of institutional control, there is a clause in its principles for determining institutional control that says this, "If the head coach sets a proper tone of compliance and monitors the activities of all assistant coaches in the sport, the head coach cannot be charged with the secretive activities of an assistant bent on violating NCAA rules."

Those are some big "ifs" in that sentence, and whether that rationale would also apply to determining a head coach's individual responsibility (as opposed to the question of institutional control) is doubtful. But Pitino could argue that the effort of those involved to hide their activity, along with McGee's repeating his improper (and perhaps illegal) behavior with Powell in lining up meetings for other men who had nothing to do with U of L athletics, constitutes "secretive activities" that should mitigate any penalty against him personally. And if I were Louisville, I would already have insisted that the NCAA interview players at Missouri-Kansas City, to see if he displayed a pattern of improper behavior there.

That argument likely would be a longshot, but it could be of some help to the university and Pitino if they could lay out a pattern of behavior that went beyond his positions with the university.

Pitino also will be able to point to a long, spotless record of NCAA compliance, and not just for himself, but for a lengthy list of coaches he has sent into the game.

By the time he walks into the meeting, Pitino should have a good handle of the information the NCAA is looking for, as well as anything said by anyone during the investigation that would point to culpability on his part, or on the part of his staff.

The NCAA, if it does not have the identity of the financial backer known in Powell's book as "coach Mike," might also want Pitino's thoughts on who that might be, as well as other information he can bring to the case.

A disclaimer: Much of this is speculative. I don't know what Pitino's arguments or documentation will be. I don't know what the NCAA's approach with him will be, or what information it hopes to obtain from him. This is simply an attempt to compare what Boeheim went through (and received) with what Pitino may well encounter.

But the central fact of the matter remains: Once violations of this nature occur, the NCAA presumes that the head coach failed in creating a culture of compliance. Pitino's job, then, is to try to prove that he did.

There is an assumption that the meeting with Pitino signals that the joint investigations by the NCAA and U of L are near an end -- though there's no way of knowing that. Several sources close to the investigation say that an NCAA Notice of Allegations could be received before the end of August.

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