LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- For Rick Pitino, Thursday's ruling by a panel of the Independent Accountability Resolution Process was a slam dunk. It was Montrezl Harrell on the break against Michigan. It was Donovan Mitchell going up off 2 feet against anybody. It was Kyle Kuric flying down the lane against Notre Dame.
It wasn't just escaping major NCAA penalties for alleged complicity in a scheme to funnel $100,000 in Adidas money to recruit Brian Bowen in 2017. It was an explicit exoneration. It was affirmation from a third-party hearing panel that Pitino did satisfy the NCAA's guidelines for promoting an atmosphere of compliance.
And while the IARP can't reach back into the past to change prior cases, it absolutely rejected many of the same arguments that the NCAA used to hand Pitino a five-game suspension in the Katina Powell sex-for-recruits violations from years prior.
The panel said, explicitly, that Pitino did not know of the Bowen payment arrangements, nor could he reasonably have been expected to know. The "red flags" the NCAA said he did not pursue were not readily evident to a coach doing his job responsibly, in the panel's estimation.
But there's more. The IARP also rejected an NCAA argument that Pitino was so strident in his focus on compliance that the fear it struck in assistant coaches and players and made compliance unlikely.
Steven Stapleton, Pitino's attorney, called it, "probably the first case where the CCU or the NCAA asked the panel to hold a coach responsible because he was too strict. The panel agreed and completely rejected that argument."
When the NCAA introduced a book written by former Adidas consultant Merl Code, convicted for fraud in the scandal, alleging that Pitino knew about the arrangements, IARP panel chief hearing officer David Bernck said the panel found it to be, "multiple levels of hearsay. ... We found it completely unpersuasive and unhelpful to the case."
For a coach who lost his job, who went into basketball exile to coach professionally in Greece, who struggled to come to terms with what had happened, who was smeared without trial by a federal judge speaking from the bench at the conclusion of the Adidas corruption cases, it was vindication, even if it could not be considered sweet.
"There are people out there that go through so many more hardships than I've certainly been through, even though these times have been very difficult," Pitino said. "... Do I feel vindicated? It's really not that important anymore. Because it's been five years. My only salvation was the fact that I learned so much about basketball by coaching in the Europa League, and when you can learn at 65 so many different things offensively to make you a better teacher, I was so appreciative of that. And certainly now, being at Iona in coaching here back home is a great thrill for me and my family."
But there was, of course, more to the story. In a news conference Thursday from Iona, Pitino said he'd made his peace with Louisville, though he doesn't expect to return here even when the 2013 NCAA champions are honored in February, unless there's a warming of relations between the school and former athletic director Tom Jurich, perhaps.
He said Jurich perhaps could've saved his own job by firing him, but Jurich would not do it. He said Jurich losing his job was "my great regret" about Louisville.
He also said he believes that if the IARP process were in place when the Powell allegations were heard, that the NCAA championship would not have been vacated and that he thinks the championship banner will be restored at U of L someday.
"Understand this: We have a 10th anniversary coming up of a national championship team in 2013," Pitino said. "You don't take championships away. You can't rewrite history. We won the championship. No, we did not use steroids. We did not steal signs. We did not do anything illegal to gain an advantage of the game of basketball. We beat Michigan with great defense, an outstanding, well-coached Michigan team. We beat Wichita State, an outstanding, well-coached team with a hard-work ethic. Great defense, unselfish offense, and my players should be commended. They are champions. You can't take that away from them. ...
"I believe the championship banner will be hung again. I believe the championship will be recognized, as it should, because I believe in the NCAA. I believe in the character of the NCAA."
One of the toughest arguments for Pitino to make was this notion that he ignored "red flags." The IARP explicitly said that the red flags were not readily evident and the expectation that he would find things that were at best purposefully concealed from him was unreasonable.
It was an argument that was used to help convict Louisville in the sex-for-recruits hearings. And again Thursday, after asserting that he never knew the improper behavior was happening, Pitino was questioned on how much he followed up with recruits families.
"I did follow up with them," Pitino said. "... Why would I be looking for red flags? I asked the parents if they enjoyed their visit. Did they enjoy practice? Did they get all their academic questions answered? What did they think of the campus? What did they think of what we're doing in terms of academics tutoring? No, I didn't ask him did they see any ladies of the night roaming around. You know, sometimes it's just so ridiculous. These red flags. It's about evidence. It's about facts. And, fortunately for us here in this country, we have a court of law that relies on hard-core evidence, facts and not hearsay. And that's what I'm just a little against, not against the people. I'm against hearsay because I've had enough of it the last five years to last a lifetime."
At the very least, the ruling will help Pitino restore his name and legacy in college basketball. That was the hope of many of former players when I spoke to some earlier this year for a project.
Gorgui Dieng, who played for the 2013 championship team, said he never believed the allegations against Pitino, a coach who used to give him a list of words in English to learn every week, then bring him in and sit with him an hour each week to talk about their meanings and how to use them.
He related a story from his playing days.
"I was at (the Kentucky Derby) and I went see coach where he was," Deing said. "He asked me millions of questions. How did I get in? Who gave me the tickets? How this, how that? Like, coach, you know, my host family, they got it. (Laughs). You know? I'm not stupid. But that's how careful he was with us. Yeah. So, if somebody can just ask you all those questions for one Derby ticket, imagine, like having strippers, or money. ... There is no way it happens. Me, personally, I don't think coach know or was aware of anything of that. Anything. Think about, you miss, you didn't go to study hall or you didn't do your homework, you will miss a game and going to get suspended. So how are you having all that stuff like that go? It doesn't make sense to me. People ask me did coach know about this situation? No, he did not. Right? This man got too much integrity and too much pride to let stupid (expletive) like that jeopardize his career."
Russ Smith, from the 2013 title team, told me, "I just know for a fact that if he knew that that stuff was going on, and that there were, you know, stripper parties or money flying and recruits are in there, there is zero chance coach would have let that go on. Zero. He's too far along in his career to let something as stupid as that derail him if he could have stopped it. ... If he would have known that, yeah, like everybody would've probably been fired on the spot. ... If he would've known something like that, everybody would have been would have been punished, like, immediately out. I don't know how it was supposed to be handled, but, looking back, as a 19-year-old, if he would have known something like that was going on, he would have torn the roof apart."
Terrence Farley, now an AAU coach in the area, said, "I knew he was going to be ... found not guilty of it. I knew it because I was in the war room with this man. And I knew the operation. And I understand about trust. When it comes to organizations and the way you build organizations, you have to trust the people around you to be able to get the job done. Everybody has a job to do. ... The only guilty thing that he has, he trusted the wrong people."
Luke Hancock said he only knows Pitino as the coach who helped him get through the death of his father and helped him make a college basketball dream come true.
"My experience playing for coach was not all butterflies and rainbows," Hancock said. "But even, something like going to him and saying, 'Can you do anything to help my dad who has cancer and only has a few months to live?' right before we go play in the Final Four. And coach breaking down and crying with me as I'm just walking in his office straight in tears. And he basically was, like, we really can't do anything to help him. I can get him the best seats we have in our allotment. And he kind of checked on him and, he tried, but there just wasn't much they were allowed to do. But it was, you know, just being there for me through times like that made all the tough practice days or the two-a-days of 5 a.m. workouts, whatever it is, it made it all worth it. Like I said, not all butterflies and rainbows, but through the ups and downs, it's the best experience and best decision I ever made. I'm sure. "
With this investigation out of the way, Pitino was asked if he might look to move to a bigger college basketball destination. He dismissed the question, saying how appreciative he is of the opportunity at Iona, and went on to talk about the difficulty of the coming schedule.
It's a schedule he may now attack without distraction, after a long and frustrating detour.
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