As soon as the news broke Tuesday that the NCAA had stripped Louisville of its 2013 national championship and 2012 Final Four appearance in men’s basketball, the stories began. The gist of many headlines: “Pitino’s Legacy Tarnished Forever.”
In truth, Rick Pitino’s legacy was already tarnished, not just by the sex scandal that brought down the two banners, but also by the more recent and ever-expanding FBI investigation into corruption at numerous college basketball programs, including Louisville.
The more recent scandal cost Pitino his job. It has not, however, cost him his plaque in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Which raises two questions: Should active coaches be eligible and should NCAA sanctions — before or after their election — disqualify them?
Pitino was inducted in 2013, soon after winning the national title that, in the eyes of the NCAA, no longer exists at Louisville. He is part of a not-so-glorious group of coaches who were enshrined while active and have been on NCAA probation in one form or another.
Larry Brown joined the Hall of Fame in 2002 even though he had been the coach at Kansas and UCLA when they were sanctioned by the NCAA — including UCLA’s appearance in the 1980 national championship, which was later vacated. Brown returned to college ball long enough to be in charge when SMU went on probation two years ago. Three for three.
Three years after Brown’s induction, Big East rivals Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun joined the club. Calhoun went on to win his third national title in 2011, but retired the following year later with Connecticut ineligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament for Academic Progress Rate failures. Boeheim was suspended for nine games and forced to vacate 108 wins in 2015. It was the second time Syracuse had faced sanctions in his current 42-year tenure as the school’s coach.
In 2015, Kentucky Coach John Calipari was inducted even though he’s led two programs — Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 — that later had Final Four appearances vacated.
The thing all these coaches have in common besides their Hall of Fame plaques is that they all claim innocence in one form or another.
To be fair, there are plenty of other coaches inducted while still active, among them Adolph Rupp, John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bob Knight, John Chaney and Lute Olson. Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Herb Magee and Tom Izzo all have plaques in Springfield and are still coaching; on the women’s side, there are Geno Auriemma, Tara VanDerveer and Sylvia Hatchell.
For years, the only criteria for a college coach was that he had to have been active for 25 years or retired for four years.
This year, perhaps because of what has happened with active coaches, the Hall tweaked the criteria. First, it required that a coach be 60 before he is eligible for induction. Second, and perhaps more important, it added a “statement of values” — which in English would be called a character clause — that voters are supposed to take into consideration for all candidates.
One wonders if some of the coaches who have gone in recently would still be elected if the “statement of values” had existed when they were nominated.
No Naismith Hall of Fame inductee has ever been removed. Chief executive John Doleva said Saturday in an email that “there is a process by which a Hall member can be removed” without providing details.
Football is different than basketball because it has separate Halls of Fame for the college and pro games. There’s also a college basketball Hall of Fame but the Naismith Hall is supposed to include players, coaches and contributors at all levels of the game.
There are only six college football coaches who were active after election to the college Hall, most notably Joe Paterno, who was elected in 2007 in large part because voters became convinced he was never going to retire.
As it turned out, they were right. Paterno was fired by Penn State in 2011 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. He died two months later.
Based on wins and losses and his players’ academic records, Paterno was as much of a slam-dunk Hall of Famer who ever lived. But, in the wake of Sandusky, would he have been elected if he had to wait until he was no longer an active coach?
Past transgressions haven’t seemed to matter to the basketball voters. All the coaches with tainted records who have been elected in this century had already committed violations that landed them and their schools in hot water when elected.
Pitino was first named in an NCAA report in 1977 for violations committed while he was an assistant at Hawaii. There were 64 violations cited in that NCAA report and Pitino was named in eight of them. When Pitino was first hired at Kentucky in 1989, he said the following, as quoted in the New York Times: “One thing you won’t have to worry about is cheating with Rick Pitino. It didn’t happen at Hawaii as far as I’m concerned . . . . I was a graduate assistant. I didn’t make any mistakes. I don’t care what anybody says.”
Give Pitino credit for consistency. To hear him tell it, he’s never done anything wrong whether at Hawaii; whether in the Louisville madam case; whether in the FBI investigation. He is Sergeant Schultz from the old TV show: He knows nothing.
While Pitino and Louisville continue to rail at the injustice of the lost banner, the larger college basketball question is how many more programs and coaches will be taken down when the FBI finishes its investigation.
If that happens, will the Hall of Fame decide it’s time to make it possible for plaques to come down? Will accomplished coaches otherwise up for election find that the new statement of values will keep them from joining other tainted coaches in the Hall?
And, will the Hall take steps to not allow coaches to be considered until they’re retired? Of course, even doing that doesn’t guarantee getting it right. Brown may yet come out of retirement again at age 77. And who among us is convinced that Pitino, who is 65, won’t land another job? At many schools, being a winner is far more important than any statement of values.
To quote the late Bill Foster, who coached at four college programs including Duke before Krzyzewski, “if there’s one thing I know about college basketball, it’s that cheating pays.”
Clearly, that statement can also be frequently applied to getting into the Hall of Fame.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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