BOZICH | For Rick Pitino, harsh end to Hall of Fame career
What happened to Rick Pitino's Hall of Fame career at Louisville? The complete story has yet to emerge but it's reasonable to wonder if pressure to compete with Kentucky was a factor.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Rick Pitino was supposed to go out surrounded by family and friends, not with attorneys sharing the results of a polygraph test they say Pitino passed.
There should have been music and standing ovations, not photocopies of text messages with an AAU coach from what was apparently Pitino's telephone.
There was supposed to be talk about how Pitino won national titles at Louisville and Kentucky, not questions about whether the pressure to keep up with Kentucky and John Calipari led to this abrupt end to a Hall of Fame career.
It’s over now, the University of Louisville portion of Pitino's coaching career. On the brink of his 17th season at U of L and 25th coaching in this state, the most compelling college basketball coach exited Monday with the blunt word from the U of L Athletics Association that Pitino’s contract was terminated.
Maybe one day we’ll learn the complete story. We don’t know it yet, not the way we knew the ending to the only Hall of Fame coaching exit as jarring as this one, the end of Bob Knight’s career at Indiana in 2000. That was triggered by Knight putting his hands on a student.
This one? It’s locked in the He Said/He Said/She Said stage, starting with the Karen Sypher encounter that stained Pitino’s career eight years ago. That was followed by the 2015 Katina Powell stripper and prostitution scandal that put U of L on NCAA probation.
That was followed by the federal investigation that popped last month, with prosecutors alleging U of L and a sneaker company were involved in arranging a $100,000 payment to secure a five-star basketball recruit last summer. Pitino's legal team, led by the dogged Steve Pence, argued the coach's innocence Monday morning and then shared some a 53-page packet that featured his legal defense as well as 11 exhibits of text messages, a polygraph and letters of support from staff members.
Pitino has said repeatedly that he had no involvement with prostitution and pay for play scandals – other than making bad hires. Federal prosecutors, attorneys, NCAA and others will try to figure it out, assessing blame and responsibility.
The finger pointing has only begun. So has the tug of war over money. In a four-page affidavit, Pitino said he did not dispute that the U of L athletic association had the right to terminate him. But he "vehemently" rejected its right to do it "for cause."
Translation: Rick Pitino has more than $40 million reasons to fight, fight, fight.
Public opinion is already in: It was time for a change.
Pitino’s insistence that he had assistants who did things out of his control have been an uncomfortable fit with the narrative of a coach known for controlling the percentage of body fat of his players and assistants. Pitino did not know about the about the stripper parties Powell organized at Billy Minardi Hall but he did find out that a recruit's parents were living at the Galt House last month and ordered his assistants to investigate.
Pitino continues to see himself on the right side of every issue, even as others do not.
The collective mess became too much for Pitino to overcome, regardless of his ability to coach basketball and influence everybody around him.
It’s not the way reasonable people expected Pitino to exit, especially not anybody who remembered the forcefully entertaining way he blew into the Bluegrass in March 1987 at Freedom Hall in the NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional
Pitino beat Alabama’s best team with Billy Donovan, Delroy Brooks and a string of Providence players you don’t remember. He followed that by dispatching Georgetown for the first of his seven trips to the Final Four. That introduced Pitino Ball to America. There was nothing like it.
Two years later he was hired to clean up a scandal at Kentucky. He did. With gusto – and praise from UK president Dr. David Roselle, athletic director C.M. Newton and Kentucky fans everywhere.
Pitino’s underwhelming team took down Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Jackson, Stanley Roberts and Louisiana State in Rupp Arena with Sean Woods, John Pelphrey and Richie Farmer. The Wildcats won games they were not supposed to win. Many of them. People clamored for a parade in Kentucky.
Pitino won his first national championship with Anthony Epps playing point guard at Kentucky in 1996 and his second with Russ Smith as his leading scorer at Louisville in 2013. That wasn’t the way most king-sized college basketball coaches operated. Good luck finding Epps or Smith atop a national recruiting Wish List.
You know the rest of the story -- and you know the necessary question:
How could a coach who routinely did more with less apparently lose his Hall of Fame career over Brian Bowen?
What happened to the guy who was never afraid to combat the Who’s Who of College Basketball with teams assembled with spare parts, electrical tape and players with minimal body fat?
Carlton Screen. Cameron Mills. Andre Riddick. Gimel Martinez. Larry O’Bannon. Chris Smith. Tim Henderson. Pitino loved winning with guys like that. He had more guys like them than the Jamal Mashburns, Ron Mercers, Francisco Garcias or Peyton Sivas.
How could the only guy to win national championships at two programs exit with a pink slip seconds after his 65th birthday?
After three decades of covering Pitino, if you asked me to narrow it to two words, I would select these two:
Kentucky happened because during his eight seasons in Lexington Pitino was wildly adored for the 1996 title, three Final Fours, 17-1 SEC Tournament record, complete dominance of Louisville and a captivating, three-point-shot style of play that transformed Pitino into the biggest sports personality in the state.
Kentucky happened because Pitino gave up the adulation in Lexington to show his critics that he could achieve similar dominance in the NBA.
Kentucky happened because Pitino whiffed with the Boston Celtics but was pushed out in time to take over at Louisville, which was about to replace Denny Crum.
Kentucky happened because Pitino was loved in Louisville (by most), reviled in Lexington (by many) and micro-analyzed across college basketball (by everybody). Could he succeed in a situation most sensible coaches would avoid?
Kentucky happened because halfway through Pitino’s 16-year run in Louisville, John Calipari rolled into Lexington. You started to hear the whispers that Cal was eager to bloody Pitino’s nose. The two had a history.
Kentucky happened because Calipari recruited better players, went to more Final Fours and beat Pitino head-to-head over and over and over.
Did the competitive rush to keep up with Kentucky lead to a member of Pitino’s staff organizing the stripper and prostitution scandal that knocked U of L out of the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the possible vacating of the 2013 NCAA title and an embarrassing probation?
Did the drive to run with Kentucky inspire another member of Pitino’s staff to get dragged into this federal investigation? The Brian Bowen recruitment smelled too good to be true. The federal government appears to be making the case that five-star recruits don’t show up in early June without special incentives.
Until a sharper, on-the-record version of both events develops, the Kentucky Happened explanation works for me.
Pitino and his attorney will tell you the coach has done nothing wrong. His only mistake was making at least two bad hires after years of developing assistants like Donovan, Tubby Smith, Ralph Willard, Herb Sendek and Mick Cronin.
The Rick Pitino that I met at Kentucky in 1989 did not need Brian Bowen. He was so certain of his ability to develop, condition, motivate and coach that he could beat you with Aaron Airball, Tommy Turnover and Harry Handcheck.
He didn’t need the best players because he was the best coach. That Pitino preferred to do it the old-fashioned way. Develop. Condition. Grind.
Louisville was in line to start this season in the Top 10 even if Bowen played at Michigan State, Texas, Arizona, DePaul or Mars. Sure Bowen was a McDonald’s all-American. The old Pitino would have made it work with Ryan McMahon replacing Donovan Mitchell.
Check Pitino’s resume at Louisville. How many McDonald’s all-Americans played for him here? Seven guys in the first 16 seasons. Short list.
Now Bowen and the stripper scandal will define Pitino’s career as much as the two national titles, seven Final Four trips at Providence, Kentucky and Louisville and the Hall of Fame. It’s not the way Rick Pitino was supposed to say goodbye.
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