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Defiant and wounded, Rick Pitino insists he did nothing wrong — and wants back in

Rick Pitino says of the FBI investigation, “There’s not a shred of evidence that I did anything wrong.” (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)

MIAMI — When the NCAA basketball tournament games tipped off last Thursday, Rick Pitino was sitting in a lounge chair on the patio of his palatial, waterfront home on a tiny island dubbed the “billionaire bunker.” He had just finished a round of golf. His son, owner of a margarita salt company, watched the early games with him but left in the afternoon because his children were in the school play, “Mary Poppins.” Pitino’s wife went, too, leaving him alone at home, where he watched the late games in bed.

“I went to the rehearsal,” Pitino said, in apparent effort to head off any criticism of absentee grandfathering. “It was grandparents’ day.”

Pitino’s celebrated tenure at Louisville ended in September amid accusations, in court documents sworn to by an FBI agent and approved by federal prosecutors, that he had knowledge of a $100,000 payment from Adidas to the father of a recruit. Since then, the 65-year-old coaching legend has been leading a quiet, inconspicuous life of quasi-retirement.

He spends his days in the gym and on the golf course. He has been doing more reading; concerned friends have sent along self-help books. When he wants solitude, Pitino takes his boat, The Floating Cardinal — “I know, I’m going to change the name,” he said — on a short trek over to Shuckers, a dockside bar attached to the back of a Best Western where the locals tend to leave him be as he sits at the bar, orders a salad and watches a game.

It’s a life of extreme comfort, Pitino acknowledges. He’s miserable.

This is the first time he has been unemployed during the NCAA tournament since 2001 and just the second time since he graduated from college in 1974. After initially claiming he was done with coaching last fall, Pitino wants back in.

“I miss it terribly,” Pitino said. “I don’t know how to explain it in words. . . . There’s just this emptiness.”

Last Friday, over a breakfast of oatmeal, blueberries and raisins at the Four Seasons here, Pitino discussed the FBI’s investigation into college basketball for more than two hours, offering his most detailed explanation to date of the whirlwind recruitment of a player last summer that, on the heels of a prior scandal involving an assistant who hired strippers to entertain Louisville recruits, has threatened to end his career in disgrace.

Pitino allowed a reporter to review what he and his lawyers said are transcripts of hundreds of text messages he exchanged with every major figure in the alleged pay-for-play scheme, records he says he provided voluntarily to federal prosecutors in an effort to clear his name.

At turns defiant, combative and wounded, Pitino lashed out at federal prosecutors, whom he accused of including him in court documents because of his renown.

“I’m not on any wiretap. There’s not a shred of evidence that I did anything wrong. . . . They basically blew up my life . . . for one reason: publicity,” Pitino said. “I have my faults, like we all do . . . but I’ve never cheated to get a player.”

As bribery scandal roils college basketball, Rick Pitino is out at Louisvlle (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York declined to comment, and a spokeswoman for the FBI in New York did not respond to a request to comment.

Whether Pitino can return to college coaching will hinge, in part, on whether he can convince someone that he’s right and the FBI and federal prosecutors are wrong. Pitino says he knew nothing about payments from an Adidas executive to a recruit’s father. An aspiring NBA agent was lying when he claimed during a sting operation that Pitino was instrumental in arranging the payment, Pitino said.

And a Louisville assistant coach in the room during that same sting operation, according to the FBI, was there without Pitino’s knowledge or approval, he said.

It’s similar to the explanation Pitino has offered since 2015, when a local escort alleged a Louisville assistant had paid her for years to bring strippers to a campus dormitory to entertain recruits.

Pitino knows, to many, it strains credulity.

“I hired the wrong people,” he said. “I understand the perception. . . . I have to take ownership, as the leader of the team. . . . There’s two assistant coaches who didn’t do the right thing . . . but they were taught to do the right thing. But people just don’t want to believe that.”

To Pitino’s many disciples across the coaching community, pieces of the case against him don’t add up. The aspiring NBA agent has credibility issues. He made similar claims on wiretapped phone calls, they note, about Miami Coach Jim Larranaga, who also has not been charged with a crime and also has adamantly denied allegations.

And then there’s the pride Pitino derives from his reputation as a coach who doesn’t need to cheat or chase one-and-done NBA lottery picks because he can mold modestly talented teams into championship contenders.

“It would shock me. . . . I just couldn’t fathom that he would arrange for someone to pay a player,” said Ralph Willard, the former head coach of Holy Cross who also served as an assistant to Pitino at Kentucky and Louisville. “It was always really important to him that nobody in his program broke the rules. . . . Now, every paper you look up, he’s the biggest cheater in the world. It’s unbelievable.”

Wheelers and dealers

The recruitment that would become the centerpiece of a sprawling FBI investigation began with a text message Pitino received just before 9:30 p.m. May 23.

“Coach, this is Christian Dawkins. I dealt with you on Jaylen Johnson. Would you have an interest in Brian Bowen, or are you done recruiting?”

Dawkins, 24, is a Michigan native who had acquired a reputation as a bit of a hustler as he tried to break into the NBA agent industry by working as a runner, someone who serves as a point of contact between agents or shoe companies and a prospective player — with hopes of landing a payday when the player turns pro. In 2016, Cleveland-based International Management Advisors sued NBA agent Andy Miller because, according to a complaint, Dawkins had been working as a runner for both at the same time, charging more than $60,000 in travel expenses to IMA while he actually steered clients to Miller. (The agencies settled the case.) Last May, Dawkins was fired by Miller for running up more than $40,000 in Uber charges on a client’s credit card.

Pitino did not know about Dawkins’s agent connections, he claims, which would have raised a red flag. To him, Dawkins was someone he knew for a vague role with a travel basketball team called Dorian’s Pride that had produced several college players, including Johnson, who played at Louisville from 2014 to 2017.

“He called himself the general manager,” Pitino said. “I barely knew the guy.”

The text messages Pitino shared appear to support this claim. From 2013 through 2017, Dawkins texted Pitino periodically, often reintroducing himself for his association with Dorian’s Pride, as he pushed players. Dawkins never mentioned an association with agents or money, Pitino’s records show.

A minute after he received Dawkins’s text, Pitino texted his assistant, David Padgett. “Who is Brian Bowen,” he wrote.

Padgett replied, “Top ranked uncommitted player left in the 2017 class.”

“We would love to have him,” Pitino texted Dawkins, and then the two had a 13-minute phone call in which Pitino said they discussed Bowen’s background, his parents and what they were looking for in a college. Dawkins was a family friend of Bowen, who had played on Dorian’s Pride. Dawkins, through his attorney, did not dispute Pitino’s recollection of their phone conversations or his summary of text messages.

Is the FBI cleaning up college basketball or wasting its time?

Dawkins scheduled a visit for the Bowen family to Louisville for the following week. The day before the visit, May 27, Pitino got a phone call from a contact at Adidas, who left a voice mail.

“Coach, Jim Gatto with Adidas. Hope all is well. Sorry to bother you over the weekend, but I just got a call about a player I want to discuss with you,” Gatto said, according to a transcript of the voice mail provided by Pitino’s lawyers. Gatto, through his attorney, also did not dispute Pitino’s recollection of phone conversations and summary of text messages.

Pitino called back, and the two spoke for two minutes, Pitino said. Gatto asked Pitino whether he was interested in Bowen, Pitino recalled.

“I said, ‘Yeah . . . why do you ask?’ He said, ‘Because I know some of the people in the family, and I could put in some good words for you.’ . . . That was it,” Pitino said.

The conversation struck Pitino as unusual for a few reasons. Bowen had played for Nike-sponsored youth teams, so Pitino felt it unlikely an Adidas executive would have much sway. And, despite their long-running financial relationship — Adidas paid Pitino $1.5 million annually — Pitino claims he had actually long felt Adidas ignored him and Louisville and steered more top recruits in the company’s grass-roots leagues toward UCLA and Kansas.

Regarding this instance with Bowen, Pitino felt Gatto was trying to take credit for a recruit Louisville was about to land on its own.

“I already knew we had the kid,” Pitino said. “So I just felt like he was trying to take a bow, so to speak.”

'The luckiest thing'

The night of May 28, a Sunday, Pitino, the Bowen family and Dawkins had dinner at Griff’s, a Southern comfort food restaurant in Louisville. Over chicken fingers and fries, Pitino said, he asked questions about something that bothered him: Why was such a good player still uncommitted this late in the year?

Many schools had given all of their basketball scholarships for the following year, and Louisville had only one left. Louisville also had used up all of its official visits allotted by the NCAA, so the Bowens had to pay for their visit.

Bowen had considered Michigan State and Arizona, he and his parents explained, but both teams had players they had hoped would leave for the NBA who decided to remain in school, making it unlikely Bowen would start as a freshman.

“That made complete sense to me, so my antennas came back down,” Pitino said. When the meal ended, Pitino said, he paid for his chicken fingers, Dawkins and the Bowens paid for theirs, and the coach headed home brimming with confidence that he had just landed perhaps the missing piece for his eighth Final Four team.

“I felt like he was running out of time, didn’t have a scholarship, and I was the last guy on the block. . . . This was the luckiest thing that had ever happened to me in recruiting,” Pitino said.

On June 1, news that Bowen was committing to Louisville began to circulate. Gatto, the Adidas executive, left Pitino a voice mail.

“Heard the good news. Um, it’s going to be great, and I’m excited for you guys,” Gatto said, according to Pitino’s records. Pitino didn’t call back, instead texting the next day, asking for a pair of Yeezys, Kanye West’s shoe line with Adidas.

“For recruiting,” Pitino explained. “My longest conversations with Gatto have been about the Yeezys, which he could never get for me.”

In interviews and text messages after Bowen’s announcement, Pitino repeatedly expressed amazement that he had landed a five-star recruit who paid for his own visit.

“Never spent a penny,” he texted Willard, his former assistant. “Most athletic talent I’ve had since 96 UK.”

Unbeknown to him, Pitino claims, someone had agreed to spend some money to get Bowen to Louisville. According to the FBI, while he was helping the Bowen family navigate the college recruitment process, Dawkins also had been negotiating with Gatto, who agreed to pay $100,000, in four installments, to Bowen’s father to ensure his son played for one of Adidas’s premier endorsed teams.

On July 13, Dawkins made a phone call to Bowen’s father, Brian Sr., that was recorded via wiretap, according to the FBI. The two discussed an upcoming trip in which Bowen’s father would drive to New Jersey to pick up $19,500 in cash. Left unexplained is what happened with the remaining $5,500 in Adidas money that was supposed to go to Bowen’s father.

On Sept. 13, according to a complaint, Gatto was recorded on a wiretapped call with another Adidas official discussing arrangements for the next $25,000 payment. The money never got to Bowen’s father.

On Sept. 26, the FBI arrested Gatto, Dawkins and eight others, including assistant coaches at four schools. While no coaches at Louisville or Miami were arrested, criminal complaints alleged coaches at both schools knew of Adidas agreeing to pay for recruits.

That morning, Pitino was sitting in his office on campus at Louisville with David Novak, the former chief executive of fast food conglomerate Yum! Brands, recording a podcast about motivation and leadership. Pitino was in an especially good mood, he recalled, and a conversation scheduled for 40 minutes had topped two hours when Pitino’s executive assistant threw open the door.

“Coach, we got a problem,” his assistant said. “The FBI just stopped [Louisville assistant] Jordan Fair at the airport.”

“The FBI?” Pitino replied. “What are you talking about?”

Competing theories

Pitino was not recorded speaking to either Dawkins or Gatto when the FBI had their phones wiretapped, according to his attorney, Marc Mukasey.

“There’s no case against him” Mukasey said. “He’s got nothing to fear.”

This is not necessarily exonerating information, however. It appears, in court records, that the FBI didn’t begin recording Dawkins’s phone until June 19 and Gatto’s until Aug. 7 — both well after Bowen’s recruitment.

“I wish I was on a wiretap because that would declare my innocence, 100 percent,” Pitino said.

Even if Pitino avoids charges, however, the most difficult evidence for him to explain to a prospective employer will be what took place in a Las Vegas hotel room July 27, when Fair was in town to scout the Adidas summer championships. According to the FBI, Fair attended a sting operation in which Dawkins and several other men, including an undercover FBI agent, discussed paying another recruit’s family.

Fair, whom Louisville fired last fall, has not returned multiple phone calls, and neither has his attorney. According to Pitino, in two brief phone calls in September, Fair claimed he had made an innocent mistake. He ran into an old friend — Brad Augustine, who managed an Orlando-area travel team sponsored by Adidas — and decided to have a drink at a hotel. Augustine invited Fair to a meeting in a hotel room, and Fair pleaded ignorance to Pitino about the nature of the meeting.

“He said to me . . . I saw an envelope in the table, so I left the room right away. That’s what he told me. And I screamed at him,” Pitino said.

The FBI’s description of that meeting in a criminal complaint suggests Fair was more involved. At one point, an FBI agent asserted, as Dawkins discussed paying the mother of a high school player from Florida to ensure her son attended Louisville in 2019, Fair said, “We’ve got to be very low-key” because Louisville was on probation for the stripper party scandal.

Later in the meeting, an undercover FBI agent handed Augustine an envelope containing $12,700 cash that was meant for the mother of a recruit.

Fair had left the room, however, when Dawkins made a claim that the FBI has repeated in court documents: that a few months before, when Dawkins was running the recruiting process for Bowen, another shoe company had briefly outbid Adidas, and he urged Pitino to make a phone call to Gatto to get more money.

“The reason he did that was the assistant of mine would have gone berserk,” Pitino said. “He waited for him to leave the room.”

In the various factions that have formed around this case, there are several theories about what actually happened, based on the evidence made public so far.

Those skeptical of Pitino note that he could be lying and escaping criminal charges not because he wasn’t involved in arranging the payments for Bowen’s father but because the FBI didn’t have wiretaps on Dawkins and Gatto during Bowen’s recruitment.

Those supporting Pitino, meanwhile, offer a theory that could explain why, in addition to Louisville, no one at Miami has been arrested, even though the FBI also has asserted Miami coaches were involved in arranging an Adidas payment for a recruit, also based on statements made by Dawkins: Maybe Dawkins was lying, boasting about Pitino and Larranaga to establish his bona fides as a legitimate dealmaker on the college sports black market.

As the FBI was listening to Dawkins’s phone calls last summer, he was trying to start his own professional sports agency. During that meeting in Las Vegas, the undercover FBI agent was posing as a potential investor in Dawkins’s new company.

In their meetings with prosecutors in New York, Marcos Jimenez — one of Pitino’s lawyers, also a former federal prosecutor — said he floated this theory.

“I told them this case is just Dawkins shooting his mouth off,” Jimenez said. The prosecutors “reacted like I hit a nerve. Like they were concerned it might be true.”

An uncertain future

In the weeks after Louisville fired him in October, Pitino told family and friends he was done coaching. This sentiment did not last.

“When you’re somebody who’s been at the height of this game for so long, you certainly want to be able to go out on your terms,” said Richard Pitino, Rick’s son and head coach at Minnesota. “This would be the exact opposite of that.”

His children want him to work in the NBA, while his wife would like him to return to the college ranks. He has hired an agent and had preliminary discussions with a few schools, Pitino said, declining to specify which ones.

He acknowledged his next job offer may not come from a school at the level of Kentucky or Louisville and said that doesn’t bother him.

“It doesn’t have to be for a lot of money. It doesn’t have to be at a high level,” he said. “But I want you to believe in me and what I teach, how I mentor, how I motivate. If you believe in me, I’ll consider it.”