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NCAA Sanctions Won’t End Louisville’s Nightmare

The saga may be far from over

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Not a day after Chane Behanan embraced his coach as streamers fell from the Georgia Dome following Louisville’s 82–76 win over Michigan in the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball national championship game, Rick Pitino was on a flight to New Orleans. The women’s team was set to play Connecticut in its own national championship matchup, having just done the unthinkable by beating Brittney Griner and Baylor in the Sweet 16. All this was happening two months after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and football coach Charlie Strong helped the Cardinals rout Florida and pull off the Sugar Bowl upset of the decade.

On the big screen in New Orleans, footage of the men’s victory played. With the score within six, Behanan missed a layup, bodied inside for the rebound, missed his next attempt, then grabbed the board again. The third try worked, with his putback putting away the Wolverines for good. Pitino specifically pointed out that moment after the game the night before.

“Players put coaches in the Hall of Fame,” he had said after the One Shining Moment montage. “Tonight, Chane Behanan’s guts on that backboard is one of the reasons we won.” 2013 was called “The Year of the Cardinal,” the players who delivered Pitino a title were catapulted to legend status, and the program seemed, if fleetingly, unbreakable.

On Thursday, the NCAA released the results of its investigation in Louisville’s sex scandal by issuing a report that found that 15 prospects and three enrolled student-athletes received “adult entertainment and/or sex acts” during basketball recruiting trips. The penalties are as follows:

  • Pitino, ruled with a failure to monitor, will be suspended for the first five ACC games of this coming 2017–18 season.
  • Louisville will be put on a four-year probationary period, during which four total scholarships will be eliminated (each Division I team can offer 13).
  • Former assistant Andre McGee will be banned from college basketball for 10 years.
  • Louisville will “return to the NCAA the money received through conference revenue sharing” during the four NCAA tournaments from 2012 through 2015.
  • Finally, any “games impacted” between December 2010 and July 2014 that involved an “ineligible” student-athlete (one of the three enrolled players) will be vacated. That would appear, for now at least, to include the 2013 championship.

It was the exact sentence that we, the Denny Crum thankful, the Darrell Griffith worshipers, the Rick Pitino apologists, had talked out of reality since October 2015. That was when the public first heard reports of Katina Powell’s tell-all book, one that alleged that McGee paid prostitutes to perform in Minardi Hall, in the basketball dorm, and during recruiting trips, and the waiting started. Could it be the death penalty? Should it be the death penalty? Most crucially, would the school be forced to vacate the 2013 national championship, the first since 1986 and the crown jewel of that golden year of Louisville athletics? For 20 months it was wondering, worrying, waiting.

On Thursday, when the final penalties for the [vomits for the sake of my degree, my parents’ degrees, and my closet full of Cardinals gear] prostitution scandal came down, so did reality.

Within hours of the NCAA’s ruling, Pitino called it “over the top,” “unjust,” and “unfair,” adding that he had lost all faith in the association. “The [NCAA] has accepted our self-imposed penalties and levied additional severe penalties that we believe are excessive,” interim university president Greg Postel said, citing the measures — Louisville voluntarily withdrew two scholarships in 2016–17, and excused itself from the 2015–16 NCAA tournament table — that the school took to cooperate and preemptively self-punish.

“It never should have happened, and that is why the school acted to severely penalize itself in 2016,” Postel said. “[The NCAA] went beyond what we consider to be fair and reasonable. We intend to appeal all aspects of the penalties.”

For Pitino, missing five games after all this time and talk of forced resignation is the most mild result of the ruling. The expectation that the report would find that Pitino “failed to monitor” the team — rather than a sweeping “lack of institutional control” finding — hinted at a greater personal punishment for the coach than institution. But the program was hit harder: The scholarship losses during the four-year probationary period will hamper recruiting (which, after a sex scandal of this magnitude, is something Louisville deserves), and there are major back-payments to be made. The returns in conference-sharing revenue from 2012 to 2015, a period during which the program won two Big East titles, an AAC tournament, and a championship, will amount to millions.

But the return of wins, rather than money, was the most crushing condemnation. Per the NCAA:

“A vacation of basketball records in which student-athletes competed while ineligible from December 2010 to July 2014. The university will provide a written report containing the games impacted to the NCAA media coordination and statistics staff within 45 days of the public decision release.”

According to independent investigator Chuck Smrt, this could mean as many as 108 regular-season games and 15 tournament wins. Louisville basketball ranks among the top 10 in all-time NCAA wins. If the vacations happen to the fullest extent, it’ll dip out of the top 25.

The NCAA’s wording is vague in an area that begs for specificity: Determining who was “ineligible” decides which wins will be stripped, and the university, even after a 22-month NCAA investigation, is responsible for that conclusion. The NCAA isn’t straight-up vacating Louisville’s 2013 national championship; it’s telling the university to turn in a list that will almost certainly vacate the championship by default.

Behanan’s 15 points and 12 rebounds against Michigan helped to win Louisville the national championship; his playing in the game at all could cause the banner to drop. In the hours after Thursday’s ruling, Powell, on a Kentucky radio station, said that both Behanan and Montrezl Harrell were involved — and yes, Harrell played in that championship game, too. Wriggling out of this one seems unlikely, and stripping the wins seems inevitable.

Vacating that win is an entirely symbolic penalty: It doesn’t affect anyone’s livelihood, and those who follow college ball, even casually, will remember Luke Hancock’s corner 3-pointer, Harrell’s dunk, and Louisville’s win over Michigan. But everything that came after — the banner-counting against Kentucky’s other school, using the most recent title as an end-all to arguments, the symmetry of Louisville winning last when my mom was enrolled, then waiting until I was enrolled to win again — is what stands to be lost.

Thursday’s decision also noted that the NCAA accepted the university’s self-imposed penalties, which is a nice touch, since that is history that can’t be rewritten. Since that magical 2013 run, Louisville’s best chance at a legitimate title might have come in 2016 — the year it excused itself from the tourney. That season, graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis led the team to a 23–8 record, one with real dancing potential. By forfeiting the postseason, the athletic department hoped for restitution, to avoid a harsh ruling. The decision sacrificed Lee’s and Lewis’s only chance at March Madness.

As it turns out, the school’s decision did not absolve it from all future punishment. If this NCAA ruling stands, the history books will show that the 2013 and 2016 seasons produced the same result: no banner, no streamers, no trophy. At least the 2016 squad will be left without the stain of an asterisk.

The process for NCAA appeals is lengthy and prolonged, and months from now, maybe years, the wait could still be on. No matter how it unfolds, a program that once seemed unbreakable now feels anything but. Louisville will argue that its championship should be separated from its nauseating scandal, and the NCAA will likely argue otherwise. But even for Louisville defendants, the two will forever be connected, a fond memory and an uncomfortable retelling.