CRAWFORD | After the NCAA allegations -- further reflections on - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | After the NCAA allegations -- further reflections on Pitino

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I’ve spent all day doing news reports on the NCAA allegations in response to the sex-for-recruits scandal in the University of Louisville men’s basketball program. I saved this column for last, because it’s an opinion piece, and it’s the most difficult one to write.

I don’t expect further significant sanctions against the Louisville men’s basketball program. So the major topic of discussion turns to its coach, Rick Pitino, who has a major violation hanging over him, for failure to monitor Andre McGee, who as director of basketball operations and graduate assistant, was found by the NCAA to have paid strippers and prostitutes for parties in the U of L men’s basketball dorm.

The school plans to fight that allegation against Pitino, and to argue against sanctions against him personally, most likely to come in the form of some type of suspension.

This column is about Pitino. I need to disclose some things here at the beginning. As most people know, I assisted Pitino in the writing of his last book. I was paid for that. For two years of writing, I made around $18,000. It was a flat fee, a percentage of his advance. I get no royalties from the book. The sales of it had no bearing on any amount I received. I disclose that because if you’re going to do me the honor of reading this column, you deserve to know.

My main reason for getting involved in that project was not money, but a chance to work with Pitino. I viewed him then, as I do now, as the central figure in college basketball in the state of Kentucky in my lifetime. Which makes him, if you follow life and culture in this state, one of the central figures in the state’s history during our time. His position in Kentucky is unique. No one has coached at both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville before. No one is likely to do it again -- let alone lead both to national championships.

You give up something, however, when you do a book like that. When you read this column, that will be in your mind as a reader. It has to be. There’s no escaping it. Some will dismiss my opinions because of it. That’s fine. It’s part of the price of getting involved in a project with someone you cover.

The other price is that the day may come when you have to rip the guy you spent a couple of years getting to know through writing a book. I’ve had to write some critical things about Pitino from time to time. It’s not an issue, really. He doesn’t read what I write.

But being around him also gave me just a bit of insight into Pitino. We’re not close friends. We don’t hang out socially. We talk from time to time. I would describe it as a professional relationship. Billy Reed once told me, in this profession, don’t make any friends. He’s right about that.

I have, however, observed some things about Pitino. And given that today has been a day for people to weigh in on him both locally and around the nation, I will add my voice, and you’re free to take it or leave it.

I don’t believe Rick Pitino knew what was going on with Andre McGee in the men’s basketball dorm. I didn’t believe it when the accusations first surfaced. I didn’t believe it as more information was gathered. I don’t believe it today, with the NCAA having issued no finding that Pitino knew. I don’t believe it was a willful ignorance. I don’t believe that he passively allowed what happened in the dorm to go on. I am open to evidence to the contrary. I am willing, if evidence surfaces that Pitino knew, actively or inactively, to write that he needs to step down. If that is revealed through evidence in the future, I’ll say so. I welcome anyone with proof to bring it. But I do not believe it is the case today, and the allegations released by the NCAA agree with me.

Why in the world would a journalist buy that? Here’s why.

One thing Pitino has strived, as much as anything, to do in the past five years has been to put his highly publicized personal failings behind him. The last thing Pitino wants is anything that will point the public back to the humiliation he endured when an extramarital encounter was revealed, and he had to deal with its very public fallout.

He would never say that publicly. He might not appreciate me saying it publicly. But I believe it to be true. Had he found out about something like this going on within his program, at best, I believe he would have stopped it immediately and reported it to the NCAA. At worst, he would have stopped it and tried to cover it up.

The NCAA, given the benefit of every kind of electronic communication and record in possession of the men’s basketball program, found absolutely no evidence of the latter. It found no evidence that he knew. It found no evidence that he set up a system where he purposefully didn’t know.

It merely found that he did not monitor McGee.

Pitino has gone to some length to talk about the name of the men’s basketball dorm, his relationship to Billy Minardi, how much the building means to him, and how saddened he is that Minardi’s name now is associated with this sordid mess.

Whenever Pitino talks about 9/11, eyes begin to roll. He goes to it whenever he needs it, I’ve heard people say. It can’t excuse bad behavior, others have written. They’re right, of course, it can’t.

But I can also tell you this. I did a book with Pitino, in the wake of the team’s NCAA championship, his second as a coach. He had just been elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It was, probably, the best of times for him.

He still talked about 9/11. Often. He was seeking no absolution when he told me, in a passage we included in the book, “For those of us who suffered personal losses that day, life has never been the same, and the ramifications will last forever. My whole perspective on life changed after 9/11 and the death of my brother-in-law, Billy Minardi. I’ve said it many times: Our life as a family, and particularly my wife and I, will never be the same. It has affected us like nothing else. It has changed the way we think, the way we view the past and the future.”

He told me once that for several years after that, he was “lost” and “in shock.” He said in the book, “There was a time after Billy’s death that the wind was taken from my sails. Basketball did not seem as important as it once did, and it never would. There was bitterness and anger to deal with. I’m sure I didn’t deal with all of those things the right way.”

I’m not trying to gin up sympathy for the man, or to offer any kind of excuses. But these are part of the record, and the words did not come as part of any kind of crisis. They are there in good times and in bad. If you know people from New York who were touched personally by that tragedy, you perhaps understand a bit more.

So when he talks about the building that bears his brother-in-law’s name, he’s not entirely using a device to deflect public attention. It means something to him. Minardi’s family lives in Louisville. Minardi’s sons lived in that building.

It’s one thing to pay lip service to a fallen friend. It’s another to pick up his life, his family, his children, and to try to carry on for him in some capacity.

There was no need for Rick Pitino to invite this kind of scandal into a memorial he personally worked so hard to build. There was no need for him to invite it into his recruiting at all.

I keep coming back to one episode Katina Powell reported in her book. Andre McGee had set up a party. A recruit was in town. Powell was particularly excited about this one because Earl Clark was supposed to come. Everyone wanted to meet Earl. But there was a problem. Pitino kept the recruit and Earl so late that there was no time for the party. The plans were scrapped.

Does that sound like a coach who had set all this into motion? Does it sound like a coach who viewed this as an important part of his recruiting strategy, or as a part of his recruiting at all? Or does it sound like a coach who was oblivious to this side-deal that an administrative staffer had worked out? Not knowing, certainly, could carry a high price for Pitino. But what signs was he supposed to see? What red flag was thrown up? I've asked myself that as a media person. We're supposed to be on the lookout for these things. There were no indicators, no rumors. The burden of proof is on Pitino. That's understood. But I'm also curious to know what warning signs the NCAA found that were missed. What red flags went up? 

It's not in the NCAA's report, but it is in Powell's book, McGee contracted with her more than once to provide a woman for his own personal activities. It had nothing to do with the men's basketball program. Once in the dorm to perform sex acts with himself and a girlfriend. Another time at a local hotel with two out-of-town visitors who don't appear to have had anything to do with Louisville basketball or its recruiting. He talked to her about bringing women on a trip to Florida that never materialized.

I had hoped at this point we might have a more complete picture of what happened and why. Perhaps, through the courts, we may yet.

I understand people who look at Pitino's life and say that he had an extramarital encounter, his program had strippers and prostitutes in the basketball dorm, he’s a bad guy. He needs to go.

My problem is that it doesn’t fit with my experience of him. I know he’s a flawed individual. And sometimes, the greater the gifts a person has been blessed with, the greater the flaws they experience.

But the best any of us can do, when the day is done, is hope that the good outweighs the bad.

Pitino had a run-in with the NCAA during his first experience as a head coach when he was barely older than the players he was coaching at Hawaii, and since then has had nothing. Not so much as a speeding ticket from the NCAA. And not just him. Why did he bring up the number of coaches he has sent into the NCAA’s ranks during a news conference on Thursday? Because none of them have had serious issues with the NCAA.

If Pitino were instilling a culture of NCAA wrongdoing, would it not show up in the men (and women) he trained? Would it not multiply among those he sent out into the profession?

He was asked about his legacy on Thursday. His longest-lasting legacy probably has nothing to do with wins and losses or anything that happened in that dorm, but in sending out the largest and most successful coaching tree of his generation.

This sordid, reprehensible episode with strippers and recruits can in no way be seen as a continuing pattern in his career. Rather, it is the exception in a career of compliance with the NCAA rules. In fact, when Kentucky needed to clean up its act after a sad chapter in its NCAA history, Pitino was the man it called.

None of that, however, mitigates events of the present. To avoid an NCAA suspension, U of L and Pitino will have to show where he was more aggressive in double-checking on McGee than Pitino was able to demonstrate in an interview with NCAA officials this past spring. It will be difficult to do. The NCAA, eventually, demands that someone in a high-profile way must pay the piper. The school banned itself from the postseason a year ago. The NCAA may well deem that was not enough, and suspend Pitino.

If so, he’ll have to accept it. As he himself has said, it would be perhaps more fair than asking players who had nothing to do with the transgressions to pay more of the price.

But the notion that he can no longer do the job effectively, that he drags down the name of the program, to me is not a valid argument. He is recruiting as well right now as he ever has. His team a year ago, in the midst of NCAA turmoil, was unranked to start the season and finished ranked eighth in the nation, having beaten two eventual Final Four teams. Would that have happened had Pitino resigned immediately, as some called for in the name of what’s best for the program? Absolutely not.

What was best for the program was Pitino doing his job. To argue otherwise last season was to be wrong. Louisville would’ve fallen from the ranks of the relevant. This year’s new coach, whoever he might be, would likely be rebuilding.

Pitino, likely, has a top 10 team again this season. His current recruiting class is in the top five nationally. His players graduate. A dozen since the spring of 2010. From 1980 to 1991, eight players graduated. Last semester, 13 of the team’s 15 players had a grade-point average of better than 3.0. The team has had a cumulative 3.0 or better for 15 straight semesters. For two straight years, it has placed seven players on the conference All-Academic team, and that’s in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Just like the inexcusable events that happened in the basketball dorm matter, these things matter.

Now, look, lots of coaches could take over at Louisville and do great things. Someday, one will.

Strip-tease parties in the dorm. Prostitutes in the dorm. It’s a terrible thing. I lived in a dorm at U of L. I was a resident assistant in a dorm at U of L. I was an assistant resident director in a dorm at U of L. I lived on the floor with guys. I lived on a floor where Louisville police made daily rounds because someone was scrawling racial slurs on the walls. I lived on a floor where guys had a small-scale drug-dealing operation that I only learned about years later when guys I saw were laughing about it. And I lived right there. I saw those guys every day.

Now, nobody was paying me millions of dollars, and I didn’t bring prospective students in, and all that. I get that the analogy doesn’t hold. I’m only saying. Stuff happens.

And, in my experience, when that stuff is illegal, people are pretty good at hiding it. People can’t get a cup of coffee without taking a picture of it and putting on social media these days, but you’re telling me a hundred college age people over four years didn’t say a peep about any of this stripper business on any, single social media forum? Ever? Not once? Fourteen parties that the NCAA alleged? Eleven sex acts? No Facebook posts? No Instagram? No Twitter?

No way. U of L used the word “furtive.”

Jay Bilas of ESPN used this reasoning, in a piece for ESPN and ABC News: “McGee's acts . . .  were so outrageous and so far outside of the normal course of a coach's duties that they were unimaginable. It is unreasonable to expect that Louisville or Pitino should have known or should have imagined that any employee would take such contemptible actions so far outside of the scope of his duties. This was not conduct in the normal course of business for an athletic program. In this case, for the most part, the NCAA placed blame where there was actual culpability, at the feet of McGee.”

Some people I respect as much as anybody in this business believe the complete opposite of what I believe. I don’t think more of anyone than I do Rick Bozich. I know what you read under his name is his honest opinion, nothing less. I respect it. I get it. I understand it. Dan Wetzel? There’s nobody better. He does great work.

I just don’t agree with them on this. I expect many won’t agree with me. You write something like this, and you’re a homer, a lackey, you’re “drinking the kool aid.”

I always allow for the possibility that I’m wrong. But you can only write what you know and feel. I hear a lot of people with the opinion, “Of course he knew, he had to know, you can’t tell me he didn’t know.” I hear a lot of opinions. “He should have known.” That’s a valid opinion. Tell me what he didn’t do that he should have. I can accept that. That’s reasonable. Pitino might well pay a price himself because of that. But again, those are interpretations; they are not facts.

I said when this started, I would go where the facts take me.

The facts as presented today paint an ugly picture -- one that never should have happened. Pitino, most likely, will suffer the remainder of whatever penalties the NCAA wants to dish out.

Pitino isn’t perfect. Far from it. He’s as capable of deflecting and lashing out as anyone, maybe moreso. He’s got his issues, like the rest of us. He’s also capable of tremendous achievement. His players want him. His bosses want him. The fans, I would say, on the whole want him.

He’s not a victim. But he’s also not a perpetrator, directly or indirectly, according to the facts presented today.

You can argue that point. You can say that Pitino is what’s wrong with the game. That’s fine. But for 30 years he’s been what’s right with the game. Former players who are successes. Former assistants in the game leading programs, or in the NBA. Current players who are thriving. If you want to call for an end to all that, go ahead. But you’re going to have to come armed more with indignation and a theory.

Otherwise it’s just another opinion, and one that didn’t get a full measure of support from the NCAA’s report today, disturbing though it was.

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