LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The more the legal fight between Rick Pitino and the University of Louisville Athletic Association escalates, the more U of L’s basketball program is in jeopardy of becoming collateral damage.

Every time the rhetoric rises, the recruiting power of the program gets a little less stable. Every piece of dirty laundry that university attorneys use to fight Pitino’s lawsuit against the school will be draped over the program by rivals looking to keep it from recovering.

U of L could well win its case. But a look at its Wednesday response to Pitino's request for summary judgment shows the pitfalls even a victory could bring.
Before getting into the particulars, it’s important to remember that there are a few ways this thing can play out.

Scenario No. 1: U of L can win in court, depriving Pitino of money he says it owes him. In that case, Pitino walks away, still a wealthy man, but with a black mark against him and his coaching future probably where it is right now: in tatters. Still, in the end, he’s no worse off than where he is, minus however many tens of thousands the court fight requires. This process could drag on for a year or two, during which time the current U of L basketball program is paralyzed from a recruiting standpoint, and perhaps damaged when it comes to a future NCAA defense against pay-for-play violations.

Scenario No. 2: Pitino can go to court and win, scoring a major victory over the university. It would be a big hit for the university, but with a budget in excess of $1 billion a year, it certainly could go on. Whether Pitino’s name would be any more restored is hard to tell, but it wouldn't hurt. This process could drag on for a year or two, during which time the current U of L basketball program is paralyzed from a recruiting standpoint, and perhaps damaged when it comes to a future NCAA defense against pay-for-play violations.

Scenario No. 3: The sides cool down the rhetoric and reach a settlement of the kind that U of L reached with former athletic director Tom Jurich after it played hardball and, in the end, flinched. It would save everyone money, and limit the time these unpleasant headlines keep popping up to stop any momentum the embattled school is trying to build, while allowing the current U of L basketball program to begin to dig out from under the negative publicity it has received.

Make your choice on which scenario is best for all involved. Now, on to the new details.

Simply put, U of L has argued that it had sufficient grounds to fire Pitino because he brought negative publicity upon the university, didn’t notify the compliance office of the presence of Christian Dawkins, a former agent with a shady past, on the U of L campus, and failed to notify compliance of unusual circumstances around the commitment of Brian Bowen, whose family is alleged by the FBI to have struck a $200,000 deal with the shoe company adidas to attend U of L.

The university also says that the NCAA’s decision to find the basketball program and Pitino guilty of Level I violations in the sex-for-recruits scandal was in itself sufficient grounds for dismissal.

Pitino, through attorney Steve Pence, has argued that the coach did not participate in the events that brought the negative publicity, did not act outside of the bounds of his contract with regard to Dawkins or Bowen and did not by willful action or neglect bring about the NCAA violations that were levied.

These arguments are interesting and, perhaps, necessary. It’s the escalation of the arguments with each new court filing that becomes problematic for the parties – and more, in fact, for U of L than for Pitino.

It's one thing for U of L to argue that it had grounds to fire Pitino. It’s another to expand upon that, to essentially presume him guilty of misconduct with regard to Bowen, Dawkins, James Gatto and the pay-to-play scandal.

An example: On Wednesday, U of L filed a response that claimed Pitino knew of an allegation that DePaul was offering $200,000 to Dawkins to go to school there, using a text message from Pitino to assistant coach Kenny Johnson as proof that he knew that something suspicious was happening. (Actually, U of L alleges that Pitino knew that multiple universities were offering Bowen money, but doesn’t give evidence of that in its argument.)

Pitino said he texted Johnson about it, ending the text, “Crazy world,” then followed up with a call to Johnson about how ridiculous it was that DePaul would be able to offer any player $200,000. DePaul coaches and administration have denied the accusations.

U of L says Pitino should’ve immediately notified compliance when he became involved recruiting a player who was connected with that kind of allegation. Pitino said he got the allegation from someone who was not credible and that he considered it gossip, and that he wasn’t under obligation to pass every piece of gossip on to the compliance office.

And around we go. Start trying to make sense of all this and it will make your head spin.

Raise your hand if you think there’s a Top 25 recruit in the nation who hasn’t been offered money by somebody. Does it incriminate any coach who lands or recruits one? What defines business as usual will be an issue here, as will what Pitino’s contract required.

It's the kind of reasonable question that the discovery process could answer in this case. It may well be a point U of L can win. But that victory could be temporary. By throwing around phrases like Pitino having a “deliberate disregard for his responsibility to monitor his staff and follow NCAA and university rules,” the university is boxing itself into a difficult corner where defending itself on future NCAA charges is concerned.

The problem is that the kind of admission required for victory in this case could pave the way for future NCAA sanctions with regard to the recruitment of Bowen – and enhanced “repeat violator” penalties that could have far-reaching implications for the school and even community.

The university could raise its hands in victory only to find them slapped with NCAA handcuffs when the case moves out of court and into the NCAA enforcement jurisdiction.
But that’s not all.

In the Wednesday filing U of L went a step further than even the NCAA went when it came to Pitino’s involvement in the escort scandal. The NCAA did not argue, after a year-long investigation, that Pitino either knew or even should have known that Andre McGee and Katina Powell’s parties were happening in the basketball dorm. It did not argue that Pitino failed to monitor his program. It only said that Pitino failed to monitor McGee, in part by not digging harder to find the violations. It didn’t say he ignored red flags. It said he failed to ask the right questions to produce red flags.

U of L, however, on Wednesday said that, “There is also evidence to suggest that Pitino was, at least, willfully blind to the escort scandal.”

This argument not only is the opposite of everything U of L argued during the NCAA investigation and hearing process, but fails to offer the evidence it points to, other than various NCAA rulings.

Granted, “willful ignorance” means one thing in an NCAA context and another in a workplace legal context, but for the institution to sign off on that language is an acknowledgment that it was willfully misrepresenting events in hopes of a better NCAA fate.

It also, in my mind, signals some of the kind of overreach that we saw in the run-up to the settlement with Jurich. And that raises a red flag.

Look, both sides here are all over the place. You’ve got Pitino on the radio with Terry Meiners of WHAS saying he didn’t believe Bowen as a prospect was a great player, when before he was fired he was hailing Bowen as a game-changer for Louisville.

And you’ve got U of L, at least it appears, fishing for more even as it makes its arguments, offering facts that don’t look great for the other side, without ever hitting the bullseye with solid evidence that you'd think it would have by this point.

Pitino isn’t likely to get a summary disposition in a matter this big. The university fired back with both barrels, hoping perhaps to threaten him, or force him into a settlement position, bait him into making the wrong statement publicly or remind him of just how uncomfortable it can make this process for him.

Still, Pitino could never coach another game and be set for life. What does he have to lose, besides some money?

U of L can still lose a great deal more in this process, even if it wins.

“All the lies and the smear campaign by these school lawyers with Tom Jurich and me is only going to get the programs at the University of Louisville in more trouble that’s not necessary,” Pitino told Meiners on WHAS Radio Thursday afternoon. “By them constantly lying and taking things out of context, all they’re going to do is get the basketball program in trouble that they don’t deserve and bring Chris Mack into a situation that should never happen.”

I’m not saying the university is lying. And you may not believe a word out of Pitino’s mouth. But when he says the basketball program is put in a bad spot because of this, he’s absolutely right.

All I have to do as a rival recruiter is produce U of L documents essentially acknowledging NCAA violations from Louisville and I can convince a kid and his parents that it is not worth the headache. Save yourself a hardship transfer and go somewhere else.

I’ve seen this movie before. U of L wound up cashing in its chips, writing a check, taking back all the bad things it said and moving on.

I don’t think it’s likely to happen in this instance. But if Pitino doesn’t blink or otherwise slip up, it may again wind up being the least costly resolution, for everyone involved.

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