CRAWFORD | Pitino's Louisville legacy: Success and scandal
Eric Crawford on the end of Rick PItino's Louisville tenure.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Rick Pitino arrived as University of Louisville basketball coach flanked by a police escort back in 2001. He’ll depart amid an FBI investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball in 2017.
No one wants a finish like this one, least of all a prideful Hall of Fame basketball coach who fashioned one remarkable comeback after another, from the death of an infant son to the Final Four in 1986, from 35 down in the second half to victory at Kentucky in a game at LSU in 1994, from 20 down at halftime of an Elite Eight game to the Final Four in 2005, from the shame of an extramarital affair and an extortion scandal breaking in 2010 to the NCAA title in 2013.
This year was supposed to have been another comeback year, with a Top 5 basketball team poised to help ease the pain of NCAA sanctions from a prostitutes-for-recruits scandal that hit the program in 2015.
But this is one comeback Pitino will not get to fashion.
University of Louisville acting president Greg Postel, with unanimous support of the school's board of trustees, announced on Wednesday that it has placed Pitino on administrative leave pending review of his employment status in response to the latest scandal to hit the program, the alleged involvement of one assistant in a scheme to funnel money from adidas to the family of five-star recruit Brian Bowen, and to pay a younger recruit who subsequently committed to play for the school. A second coach is mentioned in a federal complaint unsealed Tuesday morning, but the identity of that coach is unclear.
What is clear is that university leaders have had enough. Beset by scandals on both the university side and in athletics, the weight of baggage Pitino and his program carried became too much for the institution to carry.
In 16 seasons he won 416 games and lost 141, a winning percentage just shy of 75 percent. His teams won titles in Conference USA, the Big East and the American Athletic Conference, went to three Final Fours and won the school’s third national championship before NCAA sanctions determined that the school could lose the championship, a Final Four appearance in 2012 and more than 100 victories in the recent sanctions handed down, some of which the university is appealing.
Through all of it, Pitino was outspoken, often having to be reined in by university officials. His standard practice was to get ahead of every story, to tell his side in his own words. It was what he did with the Sypher scandal. But in the past two to hit his program, he could not get ahead of stories that took him by surprise.
A day after the prostitutes-for-recruits allegations broke, Pitino told me that he was thinking about hanging it up. He told me that he did not know about what Andre McGee was doing with former Louisville escort Katina Powell behind the scenes in his program, but that “people will look back at what I did in the past, and don’t want to hear that.”
Still, he vehemently maintained his innocence, and his stance was the position of record in an NCAA investigation, which turned up no evidence that Pitino participated in the sex-for-recruits scheme directly or indirectly, and which did not even make the claim that Pitino should have known, only claiming that he should have investigated into his own program more energetically, to unearth the violations. Still he was suspended for five games in the coming season under NCAA head coach responsibility legislation, a suspension he has appealed.
But with these recent violations, Pitino has yet to speak publicly, issuing only a carefully crafted statement through his attorney, former Kentucky lieutenant governor Steve Pence.
“These allegations come as a complete shock to me,” Pitino said. “If true, I agree with the U.S. Attorneys Office that these third-party schemes, initiated by a few bad actors, operated to commit a fraud on the impacted universities and their basketball programs, including the University of Louisville. Our fans and supporters deserve better and I am committed to taking whatever steps are needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable.”
It was the final statement he would issue as U of L basketball coach.
The federal probe unsealed into bribery and corruption in college basketball on Tuesday is perhaps the biggest criminal investigation in the history of the sport, and certainly the biggest since the 1951 federal investigations into college basketball point shaving.
And whether Pitino ultimately is found to have directly participated or not, ultimately, university leaders decided that he must be the one held accountable.
For a coach who was hoping to write a successful final chapter after yet another period of adversity, it is a bitter end. The last time I spoke with Pitino, he was hopeful about this season’s team, and defiant in the face of those who doubted his ability to lead the program out of its recent scandal.
Pitino did not return a text message I sent to him after news of the federal investigation broke on Tuesday.
How does it affect Pitino’s legacy?
In the business, we always talk in terms of a prominent person’s New York Times obituary. This episode, and in fact his difficult end at Louisville, obviously is in the lead paragraph.
The big question is what happened? Pitino, for whatever faults he had, was always within the NCAA rules. He was hired to clean up the mess at Kentucky, and by all accounts did it masterfully, restoring the program to the point where it played in three consecutive NCAA title games.
Was he walking close to the NCAA compliance line then, or did he develop a more reckless attitude moving forward? Or did he just become less vigilant? Those close to him would tell you that neither appeared to be the case, from the program's day-to-day operations.
Regardless, instead of banners, he leaves Louisville with a legacy of lost glory, and hoop dreams not unfulfilled, but taken away and replaced by shameful skirting of the rules of the game.
In the case of Pitino, the final chapter, of course, is not the only chapter. Pitino’s greatest gift to the sport, in many ways, is the legion of coaches he sent around the nation and into profession, at both the pro and college levels. With the possible exception of Hank Iba, no coach in the history of the game has produced a larger and more successful coaching tree than Pitino, with former assistants winning three NCAA championships.
His ability to teach the game, to develop individual players, to wring the very most out of the talent on his roster, to mold walk-ons into standouts, is matched by few coaches the college game has ever seen. Nobody talked much about Russ Smith when he arrived on the Louisville campus as a scrawny freshman. He left Louisville as an All-American.
During Pitino’s tenure, the academic profile of the basketball program – long criticized for low graduation rates, especially among African-American players – improved dramatically. It received 10 NCAA Public Recognition awards in his final five years for ranking in the top 10 percent of NCAA programs in Academic Progress Rate, which measures academic eligibility, graduation and retention. Eleven of the 15 players on his final U of L team earned a grade-point average of 3.18 or higher, with a half dozen above 3.4. No school in the ACC placed more members on the conference All-Academic team.
Pitino, in time, may well be remembered as much for the things he accomplished on the court as the difficult times off it. But at Louisville, he leaves in precisely the way he did not want to leave, amid scandal, with a program that is in a better place, but in just as difficult a position as the one he inherited – on probation, with an uncertain future.
The coach who was always out in front, in the end, was overtaken by scandal, and leaves behind a team and program to an uncertain future.
As for his future, television jobs most likely await. He has been pursued in recent years by agents seeking to place him in both NBA and college basketball commentating positions. The string of scandal he leaves at Louisville makes a return to the college game unlikely, and NCAA sanctions could prevent it in any event.
I covered Rick Pitino for 17 years, as a newspaper beat writer, columnist, and television columnist and writer. The last book he wrote, The One-Day Contract, I co-wrote with him, during the 2012 and 2013 basketball seasons.
It was, he told me, his collection on comebacks, how to handle difficult times, how to bounce back from adversity, both self-inflicted and from the outside.
It turns out, that story is unfinished. Pitino again will have to come back from adversity. He just won’t do it at the University of Louisville.
And the program he leaves behind will have to show some of the same resilience he inspired, and displayed.
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