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Lessons From the Rick Pitino School of Public Relations

Breaking down the former Louisville coach’s premature quest for redemption, one exclusive interview at a time

Former Louisville coach Rick Pitino Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Rick Pitino has a brand-new Twitter account, and it is absolutely glorious. Before September 20, I was of the opinion that nothing related to the irredeemable cesspool known as Twitter could possibly have value. But then Pitino cannonballed in, and I realized just how wrong I was. That’s because Slick Rick came out of the gates with the greatest debut tweet since Edward Snowden’s “Can you hear me now?” Drink this in, America:

I don’t know where to start. The fact that Pitino has a Twitter account at all is remarkable, given that the platform’s chief purpose is seemingly to tear people to shreds, and Pitino—a punch line in human form—is the ripest target imaginable. Even more baffling is that he chose to create this account now, less than a year after being publicly disgraced and fired as Louisville’s coach when the Cardinals basketball program became entrenched in a big scandal for the third time under his watch. But what’s truly laugh-out-loud funny is Pitino—a man who once had sex with his mistress in an Italian restaurant and was extorted into paying for her abortion—having the audacity to think that he can step into the depravity of Twitter and serve as a moral barometer. It’s almost as funny as Pitino setting up his account in July, waiting two months to announce its existence, and then spelling his name wrong in his background image, posting an off-center profile picture, following zero people, and throwing shade at John Calipari in his bio by claiming to be “the only coach to take three different schools to the Final Four.”

It gets better. Two days after exploding onto the Twitter scene, Pitino unveiled his masterpiece.

A 66-year-old man failing to master social media isn’t exactly breaking news. It’s the circumstances of Pitino’s life that make his Twitter usage so peculiar. As of this writing, he has tweeted a total of nine times: his introductory statement, devoid of self-awareness; an apology for the aforementioned misspelling of his name; a recap of his visits to four different college basketball programs; whatever the hell that cereal box was supposed to be; and a photo of himself at a Miami Dolphins game. These tweets have received hundreds of replies, with the overwhelming majority making fun of Pitino in some way.

We’re one week into the Rick Pitino Twitter era, and it’s going exactly as well as anyone could have expected. Pitino has no idea what he’s doing. (Are Pitweeto’s the name of an imaginary cereal? Or the name of his followers?) He’s getting roasted by a general public that grew sick of his bullshit months (if not years) ago. That brings us to the million-dollar question: What is Pitino hoping to accomplish?

It seems fitting that Pitino started tweeting just a few days before the one-year anniversary of news breaking about the FBI’s probe into college basketball recruiting. That’s not only because it’s the same probe that cost Pitino his job. It’s because the FBI investigation lingered so prominently over the 2017-18 college basketball season that it often overshadowed what was happening on the court. We’re a little less than six weeks away from the 2018-19 season officially tipping off, and all signs point to a similar (albeit not as extreme) thing happening with Pitino. The man just refuses to go away. Since being fired from Louisville on October 16, 2017, Pitino has:

And that’s to say nothing of how Pitino pretended not to have any idea that a racehorse he co-owns is named “Party Dancer”; that he was called out by Drake in a song released in June; or that he has done countless other interviews in the past year.

This is all unprecedented. Few coaches of Pitino’s caliber have had such a severe and swift fall from grace, and of the handful who have, none went about maintaining a public presence to the extent that Pitino has. In fact, the only example I can recall that comes anywhere close is Bob Knight’s handling of his 2000 firing from Indiana, when he sat down for a lengthy interview with ESPN just two days after getting the ax and then published a book (Knight: My Story) with the exact same title structure as Pitino’s book would have 15 years later. Like Pitino, Knight has also been staunch in maintaining his innocence, including when he was coaching at Texas Tech for six and a half seasons, broadcasting games for ESPN, or just generally going about his life as a vindictive and miserable asshole.

But the one obvious difference between the two disgraced Hall of Fame coaches is that Knight has remained consistent with his behavior since losing his job. Sure, that behavior has been abhorrent, inexcusable, and alienating to his former players and a loyal fan base that revered him for almost three decades. From the moment Indiana president Myles Brand relieved him of his duties, though, Knight knew exactly how he was going to respond: by going scorched-earth on everyone and everything related to the university, by taking grudges to his grave, and by refusing to back down even one iota. Nothing Knight has said or done over the past 15 years has been remotely surprising to anyone who knows anything about him. He’s been predictable, and by extension, uninteresting. We all know exactly what we’re getting out of Bob Knight.

Nobody knows what they’re getting with Pitino these days, though, and that’s what makes him so fascinating. Shoot, even Pitino doesn’t seem to know his plan. He’s a living, breathing contradiction. He’s said numerous times that he takes full responsibility for all that transpired at Louisville … but followed up virtually all of these statements by defending his actions and explaining why things aren’t his fault. Nearly every interview he’s done in the past six months has been billed as his final interview … and then he inevitably does another interview shortly thereafter. He was incredulous for much of his book about how and why the scandals at Louisville happened … but also devoted a chunk of pages to explaining the relationship between shoe companies, high school prospects, and AAU culture. He said that the purpose of his book was “closure” … and then immediately launched a Twitter account and unveiled designs for a podcast and blog. He’s slowly descending into madness trying to get people to believe his story … yet readily admits that even he wouldn’t believe himself. He’s tried to distance himself from Louisville by suing the school, planning to change the name of his boat from “The Floating Cardinal,” and even declaring that he’d never set foot in the state of Kentucky again … only to return to Louisville for a promotional book event five months later.

Perhaps the most glaring example of his contradiction is a quote he gave the Courier-Journal regarding whether he would coach again … after he already said in other interviews that he would never coach again: “I think I’m just going to do this podcast and see what develops. If an NBA coach doesn’t make it through the year … that’s always an option, but it’s not an option I want to take.” (Sooooooooooooo … is that a yes or a no, Rick?)

If Pitino truly believes that he’s innocent, then it makes sense why he’s been so adamant about clearing his name. What doesn’t make sense, though, is the way he’s gone about it. It’s obvious that he’s trying to navigate this mess of his own creation, desperate to seize control of perception. But he has to know that his reputation takes a hit with every step he takes. He has to know that he can probably count on one hand the number of people who have bettered their opinions of him in the past year. And yet he can’t help himself. It seems his every impulse says that one more interview will be all it takes to win over the public once and for all.

And that takes us back to the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea of Pitino starting a Twitter account. If redemption is his ultimate goal—and I think it’s fair to assume that it is—disappearing for an extended period of time is his only logical move. I truly believe a world could exist in which college basketball fans have a favorable opinion of Pitino. He hasn’t been charged with crimes, after all. There could come a time when many fans remember him primarily as a tactical genius and not as the guy who was brought down by prostitutes in a dorm room, duffel bags of cash, and 15 seconds of pleasure. Coaching at a high-major program again seems unlikely. But Pitino slowly repairing his image as a self-deprecating broadcaster is certainly within the realm of possibility.

The easiest way for that to happen, though, is for Pitino to first go away. As Tiger Woods proved Sunday, America loves redemption stories. But those stories can happen only after people have enough time and space to forget what made them so angry in the first place. We need Pitino to give up the fight, accept genuine responsibility for what happened at Louisville, and let the ravenous wolves of Twitter have their pound of flesh. We need to beat the absolute hell out of him, drive every “15 seconds” joke into the ground, and become exhausted with ripping him apart. Then when Pitino eventually resurfaces, maybe—maybe—we will wonder if we took things too far. Before that, Pitino’s public efforts to garner sympathy will feel premature.

Pitino seems hell-bent on trying to put out a fire with gasoline, one interview and tweet at a time. The college basketball fan in me hopes that he doesn’t overshadow what promises to be a great season. The part of me that grew tired of his act long ago hopes he chills out and takes a few plays off. But the part of me that writes and podcasts for a living admits Pitino is a content factory the likes of which we’ve never seen, and realizes it would be reckless for me to not appreciate him as such. So if saving the world 280 characters at a time is the path Pitino is choosing to take, I suppose I have no choice but to pour myself a big bowl of Pitweeto’s, kick back, and enjoy the show.