CRAWFORD | At the end of Pitino's Louisville line, a look back at the ride
Eric Crawford looks back at Rick Pitino's Louisville tenure, from his own recollections, and attempts to give some perspective given its scandalous end.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Exactly one month ago, Rick Pitino descended the steps of the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Hall to be the “guest picker” for ESPN’s College GameDay. He wore Heisman winner Lamar Jackson’s jersey and slapped hands and exchanged greetings with fans.
It turns out, that was his public farewell.
The next time he walked down those steps, just 10 days later, he was flanked by television cameras after being placed on administrative leave for being implicated – though not charged -- in a federal college basketball pay-for-play investigation.
Today, he is gone.
The Hall of Fame coach who arrived in Louisville 17 years ago to a police escort has been fired under the cloud of an FBI investigation. The vote of the athletic association was unanimous.
Specifically, the board found that Pitino was in material violation of his contract, that his willful misconduct brought disparaging media coverage that damaged the reputation of the university and that he committed at least one major NCAA violation.
End of story.
Except that it isn’t.
There is, on my desk, a stack of paper. It’s a chapter of a book that I’ve been writing, along with Rick Bozich, Bill Doolittle and Russ Brown, on Louisville basketball. The chapter is entitled, “The Pitino Years.”
How do you begin to write that? Especially in light of the last month. What do you say?
I can’t even begin, or more appropriately, start over, just now. The conclusion is pretty easy. The wider angle, the long-term legacy, is tough to see. Some will even tell you I’m too close to the situation, or Pitino, to write it with much perspective.
So I’ll just share with you the close view.
I remember the first time I covered a Pitino loss. It was in Portland, Oregon, a game that had been scheduled by former coach Denny Crum. Oregon smacked the Cards by 27 points, and Pitino let the team have it, as he often did that first season, to establish a certain level of expectation, and to deliver the message that losing would not be tolerated. Losses were to be dreaded.
Pitino finished his comments to the team and I saw guys, as had been their habit after losses, heading out to the team bus with their heads down. I went in and started to talk to the few players who were left when Pitino walked in, saw the nearly empty locker room, and exploded. He called everybody back.
He slammed the locker room door and I could hear him from the hallway outside, taking the paint off the walls. Who told them they could leave? He wanted a name. Was it a manager? An assistant coach? They would by God answer questions after they lost games. He ranted for another few minutes, then came out and said, “Go ahead and do your interviews.”
I was the only media guy left. How happy do you think those guys were to see me walk into that locker room?
There was the time I flew up to the legendary adidas ABCD Camp in Teaneck, N.J., on a plane owned by Pitino and Dan Ulmer. Pitino and Al Skinner, then coach at Boston College, sat a row ahead of me, and talked about cars they were driving.
Pitino said he’d gotten this Hertz card from a booster, “And they’ll have your car right there waiting for you when you get off the plane. Best thing I’ve ever seen.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him anybody could get one of those cards. On that trip, Pitino was trying to figure out a way to stall a hometown recruit named Rajon Rondo, because he was enamored with a New York point guard sensation, Sebastian Telfair. To accomplish it, he told me midway through the camp that he wasn’t going to take any commitments for a month or two, knowing Rondo planned to verbally commit when he got home in a few days. Rondo wound up getting mad and going to Kentucky. Telfair wound up committing, then never showed up to play for U of L because adidas, Louisville’s own shoe company, offered him a 6-year, $15 million endorsement deal if he would go pro. It was not the last time adidas would affect his coaching fate.
Pitino played the 2004-05 season without a true point guard, basically, and went to the Final Four, the school’s first in 19 years.
The next season, he brought in an undersized, stocky point guard from Moreno Valley California. His name was Andre McGee.
The 2009 NCAA Tournament was a strange one. Louisville was the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. It had just thumped Arizona, and needed to beat Michigan State in Indianapolis for a trip to the Final Four. The game never went right, never felt right. Louisville lost by 12, and with the clock still winding down on the players’ mandatory 30-minute session in the locker room after the game, Pitino wandered through, saying goodbye to all of them. He said, “see you” to me, and then was gone, heading out the tunnel himself. I watched him walk through the cavernous hallway. It seemed odd. I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Howard Fineman, now the senior political editor of The Huffington Post but then a senior editor for Newsweek, is a U of L basketball fanatic and emailed me from time to time in those days. He sent me a note, saying he had been covering big-time political figures for years, and that something about Pitino did not seem right. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but something, he promised, was wrong.
A month or so later, we found out why. Fast-forward ahead a few Saturdays. I’d finally decided that there were enough rumors swirling that I needed to contact Pitino. I called him directly, not going through the usual channels, and told him what I’d heard, that a woman was alleging things about him to TV stations in town, but that she had not talked to the newspaper. Within hours, Pitino had put out a statement that he had asked the FBI to investigate an extortion attempt. And the circus was on.
I’m remembering a sunny afternoon later 2009. Rick Bozich and I were summoned to the Starbucks Restaurant at the shopping center then known as The Summit in Louisville’s East End. Pitino was besieged, but wanted to talk. He was the center of a scandal, this one of his own making.
He’d acknowledged having an extramarital sexual encounter in a Louisville restaurant in 2003 with Karen Sypher. The New York tabloids were unrelenting. Pitino showed up at Starbucks wearing a ball cap and wayfarer sunglasses, but I’m sure the three of us stood out even while sitting there. It was to be an off-the-record meeting, so I’ll keep it that way, with a small exception. Pitino basically unfolded for us the story that, on the witness stand, would become his testimony in front of a federal courtroom packed with people. He just wanted us to know his story, to know what happened. And I think he was hurting and just wanted to verbalize this frustration he was feeling.
I remember that day because it included probably the toughest question I ever had to ask anybody in a trying circumstance. Sitting across the table, I looked Pitino in the eye and phrased the question as respectfully and delicately as I could, “Are you worried other women will come forward?”
He said, simply, “No.”
And they did not.
Later, we would revisit that time when he and I worked on his book, “The One-Day Contract.” He told me, “I know that I have to write a chapter about that period of my life if I’m going to do a book. I think the only thing to do is share what I went through, how I got through it, and hope that maybe it helps somebody else get through something in their lives.”
It’s the best chapter in his book. And it’s virtually all his own work, with just slight editing. I have it still in a desk drawer, in his handwriting.
In January of 2014, Pitino was angered when Bobby Petrino was hired as football coach. He has admitted, publicly, that it was the only time he thought Tom Jurich was wrong, but he later said his AD had been right. Pitino’s team had won the NCAA championship the year before. The football team had won the Russell Athletic Bowl and head coach Charlie Strong had left for Texas. The “Year of the Cardinal” had ended, but Louisville had one of the best brands in college sports. They were winners in basketball, women’s basketball, football and baseball. They were just about to enter the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Pitino was angered that Jurich would spend some of that goodwill to bring back a coach with Petrino’s past. He knew that Petrino’s return would harken back to his own past. I was told, through third parties, that the coach and his boss met and that voices were raised. I, frankly, thought that might be it for Pitino. He’d finish the season and move on.
Over time, his feelings thawed. He would later praise both Petrino and Jurich, and often.
But from that point on, rocky times were ahead.
In the days after the Katina Powell scandal broke in October of 2015, I again thought he was near the end of his coaching rope. He expressed doubt to me over whether he could continue beyond the end of the season. He’d almost quit after the 2013 season, when an agent came to him with the idea of becoming a television analyst for pro and college games. He knew the weight of scandal and that it would fall on him.
The only way he could emerge from such a scandal would be to remain completely clean from any taint of knowledge of it. And even that, of course, would still exact a toll.
In the months after the news broke, Pitino called me several times, sounding frustrated. He wanted to go after Andre McGee, who was alleged to have paid for the strippers and prostitutes, and Powell. He wanted them in court. He made the case to Jurich and others at the school.
“Who goes to court?” He asked me once. “Victims, that’s who goes to court. We were the victims of predators on our campus.”
He was overruled. U of L would cooperate explicitly with the NCAA. It would impose sanctions on itself, including a postseason ban.
The last thing U of L wanted, and Pitino, most observers would tell you, was a legal process in which everything could be subpoenaed, including private phone records and financial records. But, in fact, Pitino pushed for those things, in November and December of 2015.
In May of 2017, a grand jury in Jefferson County, after looking at the available evidence, ruled that there wasn’t enough corroborating material to indict either Katina Powell or Andre McGee for anything in her book, because it couldn’t find independent proof. Nor could investigators confirm any payments to Powell by McGee or anyone else, with the exception of a cash wire transfer whose purpose could not be independently determined apart from Powell’s word.
Not that it mattered. Louisville had already taken its medicine. When the NCAA handed down its sanctions in May, some words Pitino said struck me.
“For 35-some-odd years, I've had a lot of faith in the NCAA and have reacted that way accordingly as a head basketball coach - in the belief of their rules,” he said. “I've thought that in the recent past they've made some great adjustments to the rules that have helped players along the way. I feel now like everybody here that not only is it unjust, unfair, over-the-top severe, but I've personally lost a lot of faith in the NCAA and everything I've stood for in the last 35 years with what they just did.”
It’s not exactly fair to juxtapose that comment with actions he’s alleged to have made just a short time later. A man in a federal sting is caught on video saying he’d asked Rick Pitino to call an adidas executive to get more money for a recruit coming to Louisville. Some phone calls from a number listed to Pitino line up with dates just before the recruit actually committed.
On Monday, Pitino’s attorney, Steve Pence, presented some compelling defense exhibits. Pitino himself said, in an affidavit, “I had no part – active, passive, or through willful ignorance – in the conspiracy described in the complaint.”
Pence pointed out that the only evidence presented in the federal complaint was conspiracy to transfer funds, not actual transfer of money. He noted that Pitino has not been charged, and that there’s no evidence characterizing the phone calls he made to the adidas representative at all. Pitino took a polygraph test, said he didn’t participate in paying the recruit’s family and didn’t know that the recruit had been paid. The polygraph examiner said his responses were not indicative of deception.
Pence argued that U of L should wait to hear the evidence before making a final decision on Pitino.
"He should be brought back," Pence said. "If the university wants to negotiate for him to leave at a later time, we can talk about that. But this is not the right way to do this."
While Pence came to argue that the university had acted rashly in the wake of recent allegations, the school countered that it wasn’t just recent allegations that were the basis for its action, that it was a pattern of dysfunction and a cycle of scandal it could no longer sustain after standing by him through two episodes that would have ended the careers of many coaches.
“There were a number of issues over time that were brought to our attention, and we simply felt that this was in the best interest of the university," interim president Greg Postel said.
It was a jarring end to a final fast-break for Pitino. The speed of these events, against the course of his four decades in coaching and the thirty-plus successful head coaches he has spun into the profession, was breathtaking. And the break is so severe that Pitino’s house already had gone onto the market, and sold, before his dismissal could be completed.
I don’t know when we’ll see him back here. If ever.
That would be a shame.
The university made an offer to settle matters somewhat amicably, offering Pitino $1.5 million to resign, in the form of a donation to the Daniel Pitino Foundation. He declined.
Postel acknowledged that legal action may be ahead, and held out the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
But there will be no triumphant ending for Pitino, at least, not in Louisville.
The national championship he won in 2013, as well as a Final Four appearance in 2012, could be vacated if an NCAA appeal is not successful. The memory of being the first coach to fall in this national college basketball scandal, and perhaps the first to have a national title vacated, is not likely to leave him.
And the bitter reaction of scandal-scarred fans, and of Pitino himself, vowing through his attorney to put up a fight to be paid what he is owned contractually, don’t lend themselves to fond memories.
The day came and went without the voice of Pitino. The coach who made it a policy to be out in front of difficult subjects, to get his version of events to the public first, to comment on matters even when university attorneys asked him not to comment, did not speak on his own behalf when the athletic association met.
Pitino’s was a voice that was the drumbeat of athletics in the city of Louisville for 17 years. He was the brand of Louisville basketball and, in many ways, the university.
He is perhaps the major reason U of L got into the Big East Conference, which may have been a major reason it got into the ACC. He led the program back to the top, and not with a roster of five-star blue-chippers and NBA talent, but with role players.
It’s the great irony of Pitino’s tenure that it would end over an alleged illegal payment to a five-star, NBA-caliber recruit, when his Louisville career was marked by winning with players who weren’t blue-chippers.
He turned Russ Smith, a player nobody wanted, into an All-American. He helped build Gorgui Dieng, a raw big man from Senegal who didn’t even know what an offensive foul was when he arrived on campus, into an NBA prospect. He helped Luke Hancock, who became the first bench player to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, through a tournament while his father was dying. He leaned on Peyton Siva, a kid from Seattle who waded out into the streets to save his own father from committing suicide, until he was one of the best point guards in college basketball. He managed Chane Behanan, who came from a troubled childhood, as best he could. He had Montrezl Harrell, a freshman, playing his best basketball at the right time. And he inserted a walk-on, Tim Henderson, for two of the biggest three-pointers in school history, at just the right time in the national semifinal, to earn a shot at the championship.
There was talent on that team. But there was no talent that anyone in his right mind would’ve cheated to get. It’s one reason some of us struggle to understand the scandals that eventually came. They don’t make sense.
Whatever the case, they were too much for the university’s leadership to accept.
So, yeah. “The Pitino Era.” The chapter hasn’t yet closed. What will happen to his championship at Louisville? If the banner stayed, would the frustration fans feel with him subside over time? Or does the whole thing go up in smoke?
Only a couple of things are certain to me.
One, it’s tough to put someone into context when you still can’t see through all the smoke. It’s going to take some time to figure out what the heck happened here, whether Pitino flipped and acted rashly and recklessly, or whether he was merely careless in who he brought into his program – or even whether things are as the federal complaint says they are. And, yes, even, whether they are worse.
And two, we haven’t seen the last of Pitino. He’ll be back. One way or another, the current scandal will be resolved. Perhaps Pitino will wind up in television. After five years or so as a media analyst, people tend to forget you ever coached. Al McGuire is remembered as much for his commentary as his coaching.
In the end, Pitino will be remembered for his great gift for coaching, for making good players achieve great things. He’ll be remembered for passing his gift along to others, who spread out into the coaching professional all over the nation. And he’ll be remembered for his failures, personal and professional.
I watched Rick Pitino, then covered him, then studied him, then knew him, and still do. I saw him a week before the news hit, and he was as excited as I’ve seen him for a basketball season. I talked to him the afternoon after news broke. “My lawyers said you weren’t too kind to me,” he opened with.
I don’t know. I told him what I said on television, that I felt like events had overtaken him, that it seemed a tipping point for the fan base, and that I didn’t see how he could weather this storm.
Around the nation, you see people talking about how he was always skirting NCAA rules. That’s revisionist. He coached for 32 years. After a problem in his first job, he didn’t have a significant NCAA violation until two years ago. And his assistants who have gone on to be coaches haven’t had a record of NCAA trouble.
Pitino is, like all of us, flawed. Still, he helped shape Billy Donovan and Tubby Smith and Jamal Mashburn and dozens of other quality people who took what he taught them and went on to be not only successful, but good people. Or as good as any of us are. Sometimes the higher the heights, the deeper the flaws.
But there’s no way around it, he ended as badly as a Hall of Fame coach can end it. Every season, he told his teams to forget about regular-season failures, they’d only be graded on their final exams.
Pitino’s final exam, on the college coaching front, was abysmal. It didn’t do justice to his life, or his life in basketball. Always, when there has been adversity, the strategy for Pitino has been to get back to work, get back onto the court, to get a win, and then another, and then many more.
Pitino has fashioned one impressive comeback after another, some of which rank among the most memorable in college sports. If he wants to erase the memory of this finish, the first and only time in his long and illustrious career that he has been fired, he’ll need a comeback for the ages.
Having watched him as long as I have, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have one more left.
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