In his lone statement about the allegations of widespread misconduct in college basketball laid out Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York, which on Wednesday led to his pending dismissal by Louisville, Rick Pitino insisted that he knew nothing about a scheme in which his program allegedly participated in a scheme to pay recruits for their commitments.
“These allegations come as a complete shock to me,” Pitino said in a statement. “I agree with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that these third-party schemes, initiated by a few bad actors, operated to commit a fraud on the impacted universities and their basketball programs, including the University of Louisville. Our fans and supporters deserve better and I am committed to taking whatever steps are needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable.”
Pitino’s professed ignorance rang hollow come Thursday, when CBS News and ESPN both identified him as the unnamed “Coach-2″ in the federal criminal complaint. That person, according to investigation, had been informed of the plan to funnel $100,000 to the family of Brian Bowen, a top recruit who eventually committed to play for Pitino. (Along with its announcement of Pitino’s effective firing on Wednesday, Louisville announced that an unnamed Cardinals basketball player had been suspended indefinitely; that player reportedly is Bowen.)
Pitino’s attorney, Steve Pence, denied that, too. More or less.
“The information disclosed thus far … is clearly insufficient to implicate coach Pitino in any type of misconduct,” Pence told CBS News.
But scandal and the denial of scandal have been frequent story arcs in the story of Pitino’s Hall of Fame career going back to the very beginning.
There weren’t any NCAA head coaches named in the federal criminal complaints, documents that rocked the college basketball world. But four assistant coaches — one each from Auburn, Oklahoma State, USC and Arizona — were accused of bribery and fraud, in part because they were seen by their alleged co-conspirators as safer bets.
Head coaches “ain’t willing to [take bribes], cause they’re making too much money. And it’s too risky,” sports agent Christian Dawkins, also accused in the FBI’s investigation, was recorded as saying via FBI wiretap.
At one time early in his career, Pitino was one of those assistant coaches, and the NCAA alleged in a long-ago investigation that he, too, took a few steps away from the straight and narrow.
Pitino began his college coaching career as a graduate assistant at Hawaii in 1974, working his way up to a full-time job on Bruce O’Neil’s staff the next season. He even took over as interim head coach when O’Neil was fired 21 games into the 1975-76 season, leading the Warriors to a 2-4 record. But in 1977, after Pitino had joined Jim Boeheim’s coaching staff at Syracuse, the NCAA announced that Hawaii was being placed on two years’ probation after finding that the program had committed 64 violations.
Pitino, the NCAA said, was directly responsible for eight of those 64 violations, among them that he bought round-trip airfare for a player to travel between Honolulu and New York, that he arranged for players to exchange school-provided season tickets for used cars, and that he gave his players coupons for free food at McDonald’s. He also was accused, along with O’Neil, of providing misinformation to NCAA investigators and Hawaii officials.
The allegations did little to halt Pitino’s ascent. In fact, they seem to have been forgotten for a while. In 1978, when he was just 26 years old, he was named head coach at Boston University, a job he parlayed into two years as one of Hubie Brown’s assistants with the New York Knicks. Then came the top job at Providence and a Final Four appearance, which led to his hiring as the Knicks’ head coach.
Then Kentucky came calling in 1989, reeling from scandal that landed the NCAA blue blood on two years’ NCAA probation. While in Lexington to interview for the Wildcats’ job, the Lexington Herald-Leader ran a story about Pitino’s NCAA violations at Hawaii, which worried C.M. Newton, then Kentucky’s athletic director, enough that he told Pitino he was ending the school’s courtship. But school president David Roselle overruled Newton and hired Pitino, who denied that he had done anything wrong at Hawaii.
”I didn’t make any mistakes at Hawaii,” Pitino said, according to a 1989 New York Times story, when asked to elaborate an earlier statement he made about coaches sometimes making mistakes. ”I was a graduate assistant. I didn’t make any mistakes, I don’t care what anybody says.
”That’s 15 years ago,” he added. ”I’m not going to comment on it anymore because I don’t have to. I’m in a situation where I don’t have to compromise my life. At 22, 23 years of age, there absolutely was no wrong in Rick Pitino’s life. I’ve made my mistakes in my life, but that wasn’t one of them.”
Pitino would continue to deny his involvement in misdeeds years later at Louisville, saying he had no idea that one of his staff members was arranging for escorts to entertain his players and recruits in a team dormitory from 2010 to 2014 — a scandal that landed the program on probation and possibly could strip the Cardinals of their 2013 NCAA title — and then professing surprise that any misdeeds were committed by his program this year in regards to Bowen’s recruitment. But few were buying it, most notably his employer. After 43 years as a coach, the mistakes he was alleged to have made had grown too numerous to ignore.