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The Legacy of Basketball’s Most Notorious Pariah

Louisville effectively fired Rick Pitino on Wednesday after an FBI sting implicated the Cardinals in a fraud and corruption scheme. Will he be remembered more for lifting the program to a national title or for leaving it in a heap of wreckage after a glaringly scandal-ridden tenure?

Rick Pitino Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It wasn’t that long ago that a prominent basketball coach of Italian descent who previously failed out of the NBA made headlines by taking the head job at a major Kentucky university. I’m talking, of course, about John Calipari, who left Memphis in April 2009 to head to the greener pastures of Big Blue Nation, brought DeMarcus Cousins (who had previously committed to Memphis) along with him, and quickly signed top recruits John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. The same Kentucky program that had gone to the NIT in 2008-09 turned into a national championship contender overnight. Given that Calipari left Memphis as the Tigers were being investigated for Derrick Rose’s fraudulent SAT scores and that Calipari’s 1996 Final Four berth with UMass had been vacated by the NCAA because of Marcus Camby’s involvement with professional agents, the coach’s move to Kentucky set off the bullshit detectors of college basketball fans across the country. For the next handful of years—and even to this day, if we’re being honest—Calipari couldn’t so much as fart without being accused of doing all sorts of questionable things by anonymous people on the internet.

Less than 80 miles from Kentucky’s campus, another now–Hall of Fame coach of Italian descent who’d previously flopped in the NBA roamed the sidelines. And while Louisville’s Rick Pitino has long given off a slimy vibe, he was perceived very differently than Calipari in college basketball circles. Calipari was a known cheat. Of that fans were certain. Two vacated Final Fours backed up the assertion, even if Cal wasn’t directly implicated in either case. But it felt different with Pitino. He had a certain aura about him, and people seemed to assume the worst but couldn’t put a finger on why. By the time Pitino had taken over at Louisville, enough time had passed that most had forgotten about his shady dealings as a Hawaii assistant coach in the 1970s. (Direct Pitino quote from when the Hawaii violations surfaced in 1989: “I didn’t make any mistakes. I don’t care what anybody says.”) Outside of that, there was little evidence that Pitino was crooked. His biggest crime was that he often rubbed people the wrong way. In a lot of respects, Pitino felt like the coach that Calipari aspired to be, or at least the coach that Calipari could be if he would only stop playing so dirty.

Not long after Calipari was hired at Kentucky, Pitino became engulfed in scandal. He announced that he was being extorted in April 2009, ultimately testifying that he had a 15-second extramarital affair in a restaurant, and that he had a staffer drive his mistress to Ohio, where she had an abortion he paid for. (His mistress later got married to the aide who escorted her to the abortion clinic.) Many felt Pitino should have been fired for bringing shame to the university. He wasn’t. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich stood by him.

Six years, two Final Four appearances, and one national championship later, news broke of another Louisville basketball scandal, this time involving prostitutes being hired to have sex with recruits. Pitino claimed that he had no prior knowledge that anything of the sort was happening, and the school’s self-imposed sanctions included a 2016 postseason ban. Even more people felt that the coach should have been fired at that point. He wasn’t. The NCAA eventually placed Louisville’s program on probation, Pitino was suspended for five conference games, and the Cardinals’ 2012-13 national title was put in jeopardy. But Jurich once again stood by his man.

Then, on Tuesday, news of an FBI sting operation into fraud and corruption in college basketball surfaced, and federal documents alluded to Louisville paying $100,000 to a recruit. Virtually everyone felt Pitino had to be fired this time. Jurich again did all he could to save his coach, but this time those efforts weren’t enough—on Wednesday, Pitino and Jurich were both placed on administrative leave.

Pitino likely won’t be the only major college basketball coach to get the boot in the aftermath of the FBI’s probe, and it’s possible that if the investigation touches enough universities, it could eventually implicate other top-tier coaches. But that’s not why Cal is worth mentioning here. On a day when Pitino’s coaching career probably ended for good, it’s striking to reflect on how much has changed over the last eight and a half years. There are lots of rumors that attempt to link Calipari to scandal, but he’s dodged them and carved out a legacy as the coach who revolutionized the one-and-done game and who produces draft picks like clockwork. Cal rubs people the wrong way, but he’s outrun his reputation as a cheater (for the most part) and is seen as one of the sport’s most influential coaches.

For Pitino, meanwhile, things have trended in the opposite direction. The coach led both Louisville and Kentucky to national championships, and that was supposed to be his legacy. He was supposed to run out the clock at Louisville, then use his charisma to become a broadcaster and/or politician. He was supposed to maximize his opportunity and retire as a legend.

Instead, his reputation is forever tarnished, and the program he built may never recover from the transgressions that happened under his watch.

It remains to be seen what Pitino’s enduring legacy will be. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and paint him as the personification of what’s wrong with college sports, which isn’t to say that I want to make any excuses for the man. Pitino is a morally bankrupt coward who deserves every ounce of his comeuppance and who shouldn’t be allowed near a college basketball bench for the rest of his life. His latest scandal isn’t the most appalling of his tenure, but it’s a major scandal nonetheless—and likely to be major in the NCAA’s eyes. At some point even the most deluded university administrators realize that winning can make up for only so much.

Still, time has a way of dulling people’s emotions, and college basketball fans are likely to remember what Pitino accomplished: He was once a 34-year-old coaching whiz who led Providence to the 1987 Final Four; he went on to coach one of the greatest teams in NCAA history at Kentucky in 1995-96; he took Louisville to three Final Fours and won the 2012-13 national championship. He coached players like Jamal Mashburn, Antoine Walker, Tony Delk, Ron Mercer, Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, and Donovan Mitchell, among others. Pitino was long regarded as one of the sharpest minds in the game, and his defensive schemes will surely be adopted by coaches across the nation for years to come.

But it’s telling that it took this long for all of that to be mentioned. That’s because Pitino’s legacy seems like it could go another way: as the sport’s most universally despised ex. Pitino was the king of burning bridges, and he could be remembered as basketball’s most notorious pariah.

With this latest wave of allegations coming at a time when Louisville was already on probation for the prostitution scandal, it stands to reason that the NCAA will issue a severe punishment, one that could potentially take on the form of the death penalty. No matter what happens, it’s clear that Pitino will never be welcomed back to Louisville with open arms.

And that’s been a theme at each of his previous coaching stops. He’ll also never be welcomed back by the city of Boston, where his four-year stint as Celtics head coach from 1997 to 2001 was a complete disaster that led to him resigning and taking the Louisville job. And he’ll sure as hell never be welcomed back to Big Blue Nation now that his Louisville stint has turned him into a punch line at best and a sworn enemy at worst.

It’s often said that great coaches in college sports rarely go out on their own terms. Pitino, who went a combined 770-271 over his NCAA tenure, is the latest example. As recently as a few years ago, he was seen as a Hall of Fame coach who also happened to be sleazy. Now, he’s seen as a Hall of Fame sleazeball who also happened to be a winning coach.