LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The University of Louisville’s athletics board fired longtime basketball coach Rick Pitino on Monday, ending a storied tenure also beset by scandal and likely setting up a legal battle over tens of millions of dollars the Hall of Fame coach believes he is owed.
The move comes less than three weeks after a federal investigators tied Pitino’s program to a scheme to pay recruits. A criminal complaint unsealed on September 26 claims that at least one U of L coach took part in a plan to send money from apparel company Adidas to prospective players.
The athletic association met in closed session for nearly five hours before unanimously voting to fire Pitino for "just cause." After the vote, interim U of L President Greg Postel said no single reason led to the board's decision.
"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," Postel said.
In firing Pitino for "cause," the university maintains that it owes the coach none of the more than $40 million in compensation remaining on his contract.
Postel conceded that Pitino could file a lawsuit challenging his firing, but he also wouldn't rule out a negotiated settlement with the former coach.
In an affidavit presented to the board, Pitino said he doesn't dispute university officials' right to fire him.
"But I vehemently reject its right to do so 'for cause.' I have given no 'cause' for termination of my contract," he said.
Pitino attorney Steve Pence met for more than one hour with the board while it convened in private. In an interview, Pence said he and Pitino were "disappointed" but the news was not "unexpected," pointing out that board members did not ask him any questions.
"They signaled that this was going to be their position all along," Pence said.
He declined to comment on whether there had been a settlement offer and suggested he may file a lawsuit on Pitino's behalf.
"We have limited options now going forward," Pence said. "There will be a next step."
Earlier in the day, Pence told reporters the board ought to determine that the coach could not have known of the alleged criminal scheme.
"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."
Pence made public a set of documents used to defend Pitino during arguments before the athletic association board, including a report showing Pitino passed a privately-administered lie detector test that asked him if he knew a recruit’s family was being paid.
During questioning in Miami on October 6, Pitino said he did not participate in a scheme to pay the family of U of L freshman Brian Bowen, nor did he know of any payments, the polygraph examination report says.
In his affidavit, Pitino accused the U of L athletic board of “rushing to judgment, condemning me for actions that the NCAA is only beginning to investigate.”
U of L has argued that Pitino should have known about staff members’ role in the alleged bribery and failed to notify university compliance officials that Christian Dawkins, Bowen’s amateur team coach who is viewed as a quasi-agent in the investigation, was on campus last May. Pitino defended that decision in the affidavit, saying Dawkins, a defendant in the case, “is not a sports agent.
Pitino said the board’s claims in its October 4 letter “impugn my integrity, honesty, and commitment to ethics in sports. I reject those assertions. I will fight tirelessly to defend my reputation.”
Postel told reporters following Monday's meeting that the board was unpersuaded by the material presented by Pitino’s attorneys and said multiple problems with the men’s basketball program doomed Pitino.
Postel also appeared to walk back his public statement in June, when he said Pitino had no knowledge of an escort scandal in the men’s basketball program. Postel said Monday that he can’t be certain what took place.
“As more issues have been brought to our attention around recruiting issues related to men’s basketball, the situation changes,” Postel said. “… When there is more than one instance, it’s important to look at the context of the whole discussion.”
Asked about Pitino’s legacy, Postel said: “He won all sorts of games and titles and created a powerful program here at U of L.”
But, past successes “really don’t have anything to do with the current situation,” he said.
Postel placed Pitino on administrative leave a day after the federal investigation was made public, telling the coach in a letter that his and his staff’s participation in the scheme constitute “material violations” of his contract.
Pence had argued in a letter to U of L on September 29 that the university had breached the coach’s contract by, among other things, not giving him an opportunity to respond before he was placed on leave.
Those actions, Pence said, could result in U of L owing Pitino the balance of his contract -- more than $40 million.
In interviews, Pence has repeatedly said the university punished Pitino without cause and before determining whether there is any evidence that he did anything wrong.
Pitino is reportedly the person described in the federal complaint as “Coach-2,” an unnamed person who wields influence with Adidas and was involved in helping secure money for a recruit. But Pence has said the complaint lays out only circumstantial evidence.
The unsealed complaint says investigators have phone records showing that Jim Gatto, the global marketing manager for Adidas, and Coach-2 had conversations on May 27 and twice on June 1. Two days later, Bowen, a highly touted recruit who had up to that point shown little interest in U of L, committed to the team.
These conversations do not appear to have been recorded, and Pence deemed them “innocuous phone calls,” though he has declined to say what the two men discussed.
“These phone calls aren’t evidence of anything,” he told WDRB. “The timing may seem odd, but the coach can’t control the timing of phone calls. This is all innuendo, no evidence.”
Two months later, on July 27, a U of L assistant coach met in a Las Vegas hotel room with Dawkins, an undercover federal agent, a cooperating witness and another defendant, Jonathan Brad Augustine. The meeting was video recorded by the FBI.
The complaint alleges Dawkins said that he had called Coach-2 and told him, “I need you to call Jim Gatto,” to secure additional funding for a recruit.
But Pence said authorities captured no such conversation with Pitino despite having a wiretap on Dawkins’ phone. It is unclear when this phone call was alleged to have been made or when a judge approved allowing investigators to record Dawkins’ conversations.
“If they had it on a recording, they would have arrested Coach-2,” Pence said. “There is ample proof the Dawkins thing didn’t happen. This guy is just boasting about Coach-2, but what is there to back it up? Nothing.“
Pence also has accused Postel and university leaders of panicking and suspending Pitino, then voting to begin the termination process without actually looking to determine if there is any evidence against the coach.
“The best and brightest in the community get paid not to act out of frustration,” he said. “But this is just acting out of frustration.”
Pitino released a statement late last month saying the “allegations come as a complete shock to me.” He said the schemes were “initiated by a few bad actors.”
A Hall of Fame coach who has taken three programs to the NCAA Final Four, Pitino won a national title at Kentucky before he succeeded Denny Crum as Louisville’s head coach in 2001. He led U of L to Final Four appearances in 2005, 2012 and 2013, when the school won its third national championship.
But the title is in jeopardy after a scandal in the men’s basketball program that involved stripper parties, and sex for money, in a players’ dormitory. Last June, the NCAA ordered U of L to vacate wins from 2010 to 2014 and pay back tournament revenue from that time.
The school has appealed some of the sanctions, including the potential loss of the 2013 title. A ruling is expected early next year.
Postel also told reporters the university has begun its own investigation into the federal allegations, though he said the school has not talked with the NCAA yet.
He said consultant Chuck Smrt, who recommended U of L ban itself from the 2016 NCAA tournament, is back on campus and “starting to help us with the process of interviewing some parties. He’s very knowledgeable about making sure we are complete in asking the types of questions we ask and that sort of thing.”
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