LOUISVILLE — Rick Pitino, the masterful coach first lured to this basketball-besotted state in 1989 to heal somebody else’s scandal, finally toppled 28 years later Wednesday in the gusts of the latest scandal in his own program. By the time the University of Louisville placed him on unpaid administrative leave and shut off his access to a promising 17th season — he previously coached the University of Kentucky from 1989 to 1997 — it left a city woozy with scandal fatigue.
“I would say I was more angry than embarrassed,” interim president Gregory Postel, formerly an acting chair in the Department of Radiology, said at a news conference at midday. “Obviously embarrassment is part of it as well.”
“I came home last night and said, once again, to my wife, ‘You can’t make this up,’ ” Board of Trustees chairman J. David Grissom said.
By early evening, a poll on the local TV station WHAS showed that 81 percent of respondents endorsed the removal of Pitino, a 65-year-old New York native, and 20-year athletic director Tom Jurich, both placed on leave pending further review after the criminal complaint involving bribery in college basketball Tuesday from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
Pitino, the highest paid coach in college basketball with a 2017-18 salary of nearly $7.8 million, according to USA Today, survived the tawdriest of scandals during his tenure at Louisville, first a 2009 extortion attempt during which he admitted to having sexual relations with the wife of his team’s equipment manager, then a 2015 scandal in which a former Cardinals staffer arranged for strippers and prostitutes to have sex with players and recruits in the team’s dormitory.
But Pitino could not survive allegations that, in the grand scheme of college basketball scandals, barely rise above sordid: that an executive from Adidas, which outfits the Cardinals’ athletic teams, and others conspired to steer top recruits to Louisville via six-figure payments to their families, in one instance enlisting the aid of one of Pitino’s assistants.
His pending departure — and the circumstances surrounding it — leaves one of the country’s college basketball powerhouses on shaky ground only days before practice is set to begin for the 2017-18 season, one in which the Cardinals were expected to be a top 10 team.
Louisville is moving cautiously because of the language contained in the contracts of Pitino and Jurich. Pitino’s contract says he must be given 10 days’ written notice of his termination, which can be decided only by a vote of the Louisville athletic department’s Board of Directors, and that Pitino must be allowed to “present evidence” in his defense over that 10-day span. Depending on the cause of his dismissal, Jurich may have to be given 30 days’ notice of his dismissal.
But the school’s intention is clear: Pitino is out. The coach’s attorney, Steve Pence, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that Pitino had been “effectively fired.” When asked whether he was “cleaning house” at the news conference, Postel said “that’s effectively what we’re doing.” Grissom said the board unanimously supported Postel’s decision to take action.
Though he was unnamed in the legal complaint issued Tuesday, one of the government’s allegations against Louisville is believed to center on incoming basketball recruit Brian Bowen, who surprised many (including Pitino) when he announced his intention to play for the Cardinals in June. According to the complaint, Bowen agreed to attend the school only after Adidas executive Jim Gatto promised to pay the player’s family $100,000, and he had matriculated in the school when the academic year began.
Postel said Wednesday that an unnamed player would be withheld from team activities. That player is believed to be Bowen. Postel also announced that the school would work quickly — “within 48 hours” — to install an interim coach and athletic director.
As a Louisville assistant coach was mentioned but remained unnamed in the U.S. complaint, Postel said, “No names were provided in the criminal complaint, and so it would be inappropriate at this time for us to embellish the report as submitted to us by the U.S. attorney’s office.” He said he had had no visit from law enforcement officials but said, “We understand they have been on campus.”
Pitino expressed dismay and surprise at the allegations Tuesday, just as he had after the revelations that former Louisville assistant Andre McGee had paid a Louisville escort to entertain the Cardinals’ players and recruits.
“These allegations come as a complete shock to me,” Pitino said in a statement released Tuesday. “If true, 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.”
The men’s basketball program is already under NCAA probation for the 2015 scandal. Pitino faced a five-game suspension during the upcoming season as part of the penalties; in addition, Louisville was ordered to return money received for NCAA tournament appearances from 2012 through 2015 and to vacate 123 wins during that period, including the 2013 national championship. The university has appealed the ruling.
Pitino found success at nearly every NCAA stop he made in a coaching career that began in the mid-1970s. At Boston University, his first head coaching job, he led the Terriers to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 24 years. Pitino parlayed that success into a two-year run at Providence, where he guided the Friars to the 1987 Final Four.
Then, after a two-year run coaching the New York Knicks, he left his dream NBA job in 1989 to take over at tradition-rich but scandal-plagued Kentucky, even though the Wildcats would be banned from live television in his first season and from the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons.
After that, however, Pitino quickly had Kentucky back among the nation’s elite, with a memorable Elite Eight appearance in the Wildcats’ first post-probation season in 1992 and a Final Four bid the season after that, his first of three appearances in the national semifinals at the school. In 1996, he led Kentucky to its first national title in 18 years.
After an unsuccessful four-year run as coach and team president of the Boston Celtics, he was back at another faded Kentucky power: Louisville, which had not won an NCAA tournament game in Denny Crum’s last four seasons.
More success followed, even as Louisville pinballed its way from Conference USA to the Big East to one season in the American Athletic Conference before finally landing securely in the ACC. The school came out ahead in the NCAA’s football-driven conference-realignment wars even though the Cardinals’ football program has never been regarded as a power.
The school’s athletic programs were buoyed financially — just like every other big-time NCAA program — by their apparel agreement with a major athletic brand, in this case Adidas, a relationship that began in the mid-1990s and continued throughout Pitino’s tenure. Last month, the school announced that its athletes would continue to sport the brand in a deal worth $160 million over 10 years.
Ironically, Pitino decried the shoe companies’ presence in basketball recruiting, in which prospects attend summer camps and tournaments sponsored by the sneaker companies with the hopes that they both attend colleges that have agreements with those companies and then continue to wear the product should they continue their careers professionally.
“I never thought that shoes would be the reason you recruit players,” Pitino said in 2014. “It’s a factor. It’s a factor. I think we need to deal with that. I think we need to get the shoe companies out of the lives of young athletes. I think we need to get it back to where parents have more of a say than peripheral people. But that’s easier said than done. I don’t know how to do that. It’s like trying to get the [recruiting] runners out of the game. I know we try to do our best to do that, but I don’t know. I don’t know how to do that.”
Bonesteel reported from Washington.