In late October, Coach Rick Pitino stood behind a lectern at Louisville’s annual tip-off luncheon. He looked the worse for wear, pale skin stretched over his gaunt face, black hair creeping over his scalp in a slicked-back tuft. Pitino is on the eve of his 31st and perhaps most complicated season as a college basketball head coach. He’s 64 now; the years show.
In his work and public dealings, Pitino remains nimble and sharp. To an applauding crowd, Pitino cracked jokes, complimented his athletic department colleagues and bosses and reviewed his roster. He repeated that Louisville draws more eyeballs and produces more revenue than any college hoops program in the country. At the end of nearly 30 minutes, he concluded.
“We’ve apologized many times for things that have gone wrong,” Pitino said. “The only thing we’re going to do to make up for it is get back to another Final Four, get back to another championship and raise another banner. Thank you all very much.”
This season, then, will include for Pitino an attempt at absolution through victory. One year after a prostitution scandal and an NCAA investigation persuaded Louisville to ban its contending team from the postseason, the Cardinals return with a roster — and, most definitely, a coach — good enough to reach Pitino’s eighth Final Four.
Throughout those years, a number of accomplished assistant coaches sat alongside Pitino on the sidelines. By the count of one of them, 29 have gone on to become head coaches and take over their own programs, a proud fraternity both loyal and grateful to Pitino. As part of that grooming process, Pitino gave his assistants an inordinate amount of responsibility — and trust. In at least one instance, that trust was betrayed.
Pitino spent March as an observer after Louisville issued itself a postseason ban following the revelation, published in the book “Breaking Cardinal Rules” by former escort Katina Powell, that former assistant coach Andre McGee had paid for strippers and prostitutes for recruits. The activities occurred in a dormitory named for Pitino’s late brother-in-law Billy Minardi, who died working in New York City during the Sept. 11 attacks. If 29 former assistants had gone on to validate Pitino, one had thrown his program into chaos.
For Louisville, winning can be the simple aim. For Pitino, will it be enough to remove another stain on his résumé? Recruits consorting with prostitutes on his campus will reside next to his humiliating extortion case from 2009, when Pitino admitted to a sexual affair with a woman in a Louisville Italian restaurant . The encounter became public after the woman was charged in federal court with trying to blackmail Pitino.
“I don’t look at it as a legacy,” Pitino said. “It’s not about that. I don’t look at it as tarnishing. I’ve been compliant as a head coach with NCAA rules.”
Pitino fiercely insisted he had no knowledge of the impropriety and could not have known because McGee worked to keep it from him. Last month, the NCAA sent Louisville a notice of allegations, which included Pitino’s failure to monitor McGee. Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich said the school would fight that particular allegation. If the NCAA’s allegation sticks, Pitino could receive a suspension, likely in 2017, similar to other failure-to-monitor cases such as those of Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Southern Methodist’s Larry Brown.
“Do I agree with the failure to monitor my people?” Pitino said at a news conference last month. “No. Absolutely not. Because I over-monitor my staff.”
He listed a dozen names of former assistants — Kevin Willard, Billy Donovan, Mick Cronin, his son Richard among them — who had become head coaches. Those who worked for him insist Pitino’s approach with them — the same approach he had taken with McGee — is what has allowed Pitino to launch so many head coaches, the fraternity of 29.
“My take on what he’s trying to say is, if you don’t entrust the people that are working for you and empower them, then how do they become who a lot of us have become?” Cronin, entering his 11th season as Cincinnati’s coach, said in a telephone conversation. “He gave us a lot of responsibility. The same way Hubie Brown molded him into being Rick Pitino is the same way he’s approached it to a litany of coaches. In the history of the game, no coach will ever come close to producing head coaches the way Rick Pitino did. It’s unprecedented.”
Willard, now Seton Hall’s head coach, worked under Pitino for a decade and is the son of longtime Pitino assistant Ralph Willard. He thinks of Pitino as a second father figure and credits him with preparing him to become a head coach. Under Pitino, he would direct video coordinators, work with academic advisers and attend alumni dinners, more and broader tasks than many assistants.
“When you work for Coach Pitino, you work as an assistant probably as hard as any assistant for any staff in the country,” Willard said. “Because you work so hard and because you work so hard with him, he has a tremendous amount of trust. What he teaches his assistants, he teaches them to be head coaches. You’re responsible for everything.”
Cronin worked as Pitino’s associate head coach from 2001 to 2003 before becoming a head coach for the first time at Murray State. He called working on Pitino’s staff “the ultimate gold in this business” and said other assistants — and even head coaches at lower-level programs — constantly call him looking for a recommendation to join Louisville’s staff.
For Cronin, McGee’s actions felt like a betrayal. In his mind, Pitino had helped so many assistants achieve so much in coaching. When McGee received an opportunity so many young coaches desired, his actions rocked Pitino.
“You got to be kidding me,” Cronin said. “How could somebody be, first of all, dumb enough to do any of that stuff? Number two, how could you put [Pitino] in that position? How could you not think about the consequences, what this would do to a great person and great Hall of Famer’s legacy? It’s mind-blowing to me.
“I’m hurt and angry at the people who deceived him and made poor decisions underneath him. I think he’s well aware he’s responsible for everything that goes on with his program. He’s well aware, and he feels terrible about it because of what Louisville has done for him and his family. He loves the place. How does he reconcile it? If he would have been a different coach, then a lot of us probably wouldn’t have been able to become what we’ve become.”
It was the point Pitino made at his news conference last month, after the NCAA sent its letter to Louisville.
“I am not guilty of failing to monitor my staff,” Pitino said. “I am guilty of trusting someone because none of those people would have risen to the heights that they have risen to . . .”
He paused and added three names he had forgotten when previously listing names of past assistants: Frank Vogel, Brett Brown and Scotty Davenport.
“The reason they became so responsible is I believe and trusted them, and all head coaches believe and trust in their assistant coaches because it is what we do,” he said.
If Pitino believes he can scrub the blemish with success, then he has a chance this season. The Cardinals — No. 13 in the preseason Associated Press poll — do not return a double-digit scorer, but their roster still makes them a threat. Pitino called junior Quentin Snider “as good a point guard as there is the nation.” Long-armed wing Deng Adel is one of the best defenders in the country. Five-star freshman small forward VJ King (Paul VI High) will provide some of the scoring punch lost with the departures of Damion Lee and Trey Lewis.
One of Pitino’s challenges will be to prevent last year’s tumult from becoming this year’s burden. Those who know him say he is uniquely equipped.
“Unfortunately” Cronin said, “he has a PhD in dealing with tough things in his life.”
A son, Daniel, whom Pitino would later name a charity after, died at six months in the late 1980s. He lost both his brothers-in-law in 2001. Davenport said the events allowed him to handle lesser trials.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Coach,” Cronin said. “He’s past it. He’s the best at moving on and being positive.”