The FBI’s probe into college basketball has claimed the career of one of the sport’s most well-known coaches. Rick Pitino has been ousted at Louisville, ending a 16-year tenure that featured the 2012-13 NCAA championship and three Final Four appearances. Reports indicate that longtime Cardinals athletic director Tom Jurich was asked to fire Pitino on Wednesday and refused, and shortly thereafter both Jurich and Pitino were placed on administrative leave.
The federal investigation that came to light on Tuesday sought to uncover corruption in the college basketball world, namely the notion that apparel companies are funneling money to top high school recruits to attend certain colleges, and that coaches at those colleges are bribed to ensure that players go on to sign with specific agents and apparel companies upon reaching the NBA. The fact that this happens is not news to most college basketball fans; the most surprising thing is that the payments were federal crimes rather than piddly NCAA violations.
Louisville and Pitino were not named in the papers produced by the feds on Tuesday, but it was easy to read between the lines of the documents. The probe made it clear that five-star Cardinals commit Brian Bowen is accused of being paid $100,000 in a back-channel deal to get him to enroll at Louisville. Reports that came out around the time of Bowen’s commitment in June considered the decision a “recruiting stunner.” Now, his choice makes a lot more sense.
There are some retrospective laughs to be had at Pitino’s expense. A few years ago, the coach claimed that shoe companies were too involved in the lives of youth basketball players—all while shoe companies may have been paying top recruits to play for the Cardinals. And Pitino joked about how little money he’d spent on the recruiting process for Bowen, unaware that alleged secret payments to Bowen’s family would end his Louisville career:
Rick Pitino literally bragged about having to spend zero dollars to get Brian Bowen when he actually paid 100K behind the scenes. pic.twitter.com/Zn4z6MxuuQ— Eric Fawcett (@Efawcett7) September 26, 2017
Perhaps the funniest thing of all: a Louisville coach insisted that a payment to a recruit be “low-key,” because the school was already dealing with multiple NCAA infractions as a result of previous scandals. This is the equivalent of tip-toeing to avoid notice from the grizzly bear about to eat you.
Somehow, this is the first time that Pitino has ever been forced out of a head-coaching job despite him having several angry exes over the course of his career. He turned an NCAA tournament appearance at Boston University into an assistant-coaching job with the Knicks. He left New York to become the head coach at Providence, then turned a Final Four berth into a head-coaching job with the Knicks. Then, after two seasons, he quit to take over as the head coach at Kentucky. He won a national championship with the Wildcats, and then bolted to become the head coach of the Celtics. He was disliked in Boston and went 102-146 there over three-plus seasons, but he wasn’t fired—he quit midseason, before the axe could drop, deciding his dignity was worth more than the $22 million that the team would have owed him had he been fired. For the first 40-plus years of his coaching career, Pitino excelled at breaking up with the teams he coached before they could break up with him.
And yet Pitino has been entangled in so much scandal. He faced NCAA sanctions as an assistant coach at Hawaii early in his career, and at Louisville he’s been involved in two of the most lurid scandals in recent college basketball memory.
In 2010, Pitino testified against Karen Sypher, who was later convicted of extortion against him. The details of the case are absurd: Pitino admitted to having sex with Sypher, famously proclaiming the intercourse took “less than 15 seconds,” and gave a staffer money to drive Sypher to an abortion clinic in Ohio and pay for her operation. Sypher subsequently married the assistant who escorted her to the abortion clinic, and five years later she attempted to blackmail Pitino via other men she slept with. Pitino kept his job—after all, he was technically the victim in this case. Sypher was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In 2015, Pitino was at the center of a scandal that did seem like it’d get him fired: Louisville was accused of paying prostitutes to sleep with recruits, in the hopes that those players would then commit to the Cardinals. Louisville accepted most of the accusations and self-imposed a 2016 postseason ban, but fought back against more sanctions on the grounds that the prostitutes weren’t particularly expensive and therefore shouldn’t trigger the NCAA’s highest category of punishment—really, this was an argument that the school made—and that Pitino didn’t know any of this was taking place. The NCAA still hit Pitino with a punishment, noting that he’d failed to properly oversee the basketball program if his staffers were purchasing sex for recruits without his knowledge. Still, Pitino was allowed to keep his job.
You know why? Pitino is a really good basketball coach. He’s the only coach to reach the Final Four at three different schools—well, Kentucky’s John Calipari also did it, but two are no longer recognized as a result of NCAA violations. Pitino has won national championships at two different institutions. When he and Jurich got their jobs at Louisville, the Cardinals were part of Conference USA; now the school is one of the premier football and basketball programs in the ACC. That upward mobility in realignment is worth tens of millions of dollars in media rights deals annually, and the school will continue to reap the benefits of that move long after Pitino and Jurich are gone.
It’s hard to imagine another coach remaining employed after sending a university-employed staffer out of state to handle the discreet termination of an unwanted pregnancy from an extramarital affair. It’s especially tough to imagine that same coach being able to survive a school-sponsored prostitution ring by pleading ignorance.
Yet Pitino outlasted those outlandish cases—in fact, after the prostitution scandal surfaced, some argued that the unprecedented, irreplicable nature of the scenario is why Louisville avoided stricter punishment. But on Wednesday, he went down for doing something common.
Pitino lasted through the things he did because he was so good at playing the game, but now the government has decided that playing the game itself is illegal. In the screwed-up world of college sports, paying prostitutes is apparently less egregious than paying student-athletes.