Rick Pitino survived the tawdriest of scandals during his tenure as coach of the Louisville men’s basketball team, 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. Those allegations, unveiled Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York after a years-long undercover investigation by the FBI, proved to be Pitino’s undoing.
On Wednesday, Pitino reportedly was informed of his dismissal after 16 seasons, three Final Four appearances and one national championship at Louisville, likely ending a career that earned him a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. His departure, and the circumstances surrounding it, leaves one of the nation’s college basketball powerhouses on shaky ground only days before practice was to begin for the 2017-18 season, one in which the Cardinals were expected to be a top 10 team.
Tom Jurich, Louisville’s athletic director since 1997, also reportedly was fired, though a school spokesman later denied those reports and said both men officially were still employed. Both he and Pitino briefly met with Louisville interim president Greg Postel on Wednesday morning, departing with little to say to the reporters who were gathered.
Pitino leaving. pic.twitter.com/1HE3gOZQnx
— Marcus Green (@MarcusGreenWDRB) September 27, 2017
Pitino’s attorney, Steve Pence, told the Louisville Courier-Journal that the coach had been placed on administrative leave Wednesday and that he had been “effectively fired.” Pitino’s contract says he must be given 10 days’ notice of his termination, which only can be decided 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, according to WRDB’s Chris Otts.
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 by his lawyer, Steve Pence. “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.”
But Louisville officials needed less than 24 hours to find that Pitino ultimately was responsible for the alleged misdeeds of his program.
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, 65, 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 he 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 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 a thoroughly 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 coming 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 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, where 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.”
He never was able to figure that out, and it led to his downfall.