Rick Pitino turned out to be a colossal waste of talent. Forced out by Louisville on Wednesday, Pitino will not be remembered as a coach who made regular appearances in the Final Four.
He will be remembered as the architect of a morally bankrupt program, and as a complete disgrace to his profession.
We usually think of athletes, not coaches, when we talk about superstar talent, but Pitino was different. He was absolutely born to do this for a living. If coaching ever had a bonus-baby prospect, Richard Andrew Pitino was the one. He was every bit the blue-chipper that his Louisville program allegedly purchased for a hundred grand.
Pitino was as good a basketball coach as there was on the planet, college or pro. He won national titles for the Kentucky Wildcats and the Cardinals, the equivalent of winning the World Series for his hometown Yankees and Mets. At 34, he took over a New York Knicks team that had won fewer than 25 games in each of its previous three seasons and won 38 in Year 1 and 52 in Year 2 before losing to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the conference semis.
Old-school New Yorkers still believe Pitino's work was at least equal to the work done by the last two coaches to take the Knicks to the Finals, Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy. In fact, Van Gundy still says the best coaching job he ever saw was the job his boss at Providence College did in 1986-87, when Pitino's best player was a fat kid from Long Island named Billy Donovan. Through several acts of God, and some brilliant maneuvering and motivating, Pitino somehow carried that team to the Final Four.
But after Louisville placed him on an unpaid leave that will certainly end with his firing, his legacy won't be defined by the games won and the banners hung. Pitino's enduring story will revolve around the unseemly scandals that kept unfolding around him, including this latest one that surely ended his coaching career for keeps.
Seven weeks after the NCAA put Louisville on probation for a sex-for-pay scheme run by a Pitino assistant, FBI agents secretly videotaped a July meeting in a Las Vegas hotel room that involved another Pitino assistant discussing an Adidas-backed plan to funnel money to the family of a recruit, who would then agree to sign with Adidas-sponsored Louisville. After the Pitino assistant left the room, according to federal documents, a former sports agent and the director of an Adidas AAU program continued talking with an undercover agent and a cooperating federal witness about a $100,000 payoff to the family of a Louisville recruit.
Pitino said he was shocked to learn of the latest allegation, just as he was shocked to learn that his former staffer, Andre McGee, was running strippers into the campus dorm named after the coach's late brother-in-law to have sex with players and recruits. "Shocked" was a popular word Tuesday when college basketball assistants from Auburn (former NBA star Chuck Person), Oklahoma State (Lamont Evans), Arizona (Emanuel "Book" Richardson) and Southern California (Tony Bland) were charged with taking cash bribes to steer players to financial advisers and agents. Officials at Auburn and USC used the word in statements. Oklahoma State went with the milder "surprised." Arizona checked in with the stronger "appalled."
Yet the schools involved in this scandal represent the SEC, the Pac-12, the Big 12 and the ACC. (Miami was also implicated; the FBI alleged Adidas attempted to pay $150,000 for a recruit to play for the Adidas-sponsored Hurricanes.) Grab a list of all universities in those heavyweight conferences, grab a map of the United States, and behold a coast-to-coast plague of criminality and fraudulence.
Four major college assistant coaches and six other men, including the director of global sports marketing at Adidas, were arrested by federal agents on corruption charges. And if you believe this small circle of opportunists accounts for all the cheating and illicit buying and selling that goes on at the highest levels of Division I basketball, you also believe that most multimillionaire college coaches are pure educators first and ruthless businessmen second.
The men charged will likely end up as this case's Watergate burglars. If concerned middlemen and sneaker reps and AAU coaches around the country start talking to the feds, huge names in this sport could fall. One prominent Division I head coach said Wednesday morning that he believes "without a doubt" he's lost a recruit nearly every year to a competing school that paid for that recruit's signature.
For now, the familiar face of this scandal is a coach who wasn't named in the federal complaint. Pitino was suspended for five ACC games for failing to monitor his program in the McGee case, and it's possible Louisville will be forced to vacate dozens of victories, possibly including the 2013 NCAA title. This time around, before any final judgments were made, the punishment was more decisive: Pitino was forced to vacate the office of the head basketball coach.
He earned this likely firing for sure, and that's a damn shame. Pitino was such a natural at recruiting and game-planning and inspiring young athletes, he didn't have to run an outlaw program to succeed. He didn't have to leave Louisville's program in the same shape that he found Kentucky's in 1989.
That Pitino survived at Louisville this long, after causing so much trouble, has stunned some of his peers. He had a sexual encounter with a woman on a restaurant table in 2003, and the woman, Karen Sypher, later used $3,000 that Pitino gave her to pay for an abortion. Though she was convicted in 2010 of trying to extort cash and gifts from Pitino, less successful coaches likely would've been fired for his behavior.
Less successful coaches definitely would've been fired for strike two -- a sex scandal of a different sort -- even though Pitino swore he knew nothing of the two dozen parties some of his players and recruits had with strippers and prostitutes between 2010 and 2014.
In a phone interview with ESPN.com last year, Pitino said this of the McGee case: "Fortunately I'm innocent of all wrongdoing, I run a clean program, and I go overboard on being compliant. And unfortunately this happened because of a young man who I gave a break to every step along the way in life. That being said, I can understand anybody's opinion when it first broke that, how could nobody know? How it happened I'll never know, but it's a part of my life and something I have to live with. When all is said and done, everybody will see how I run a program."
In that same interview, the Louisville coach spoke of the impact of the Sypher case. "I have a very close-knit family and I hurt my children and wife, and for 10 years I've been trying to make up for that hurt," he said. "I'm not worried about public things when someone went to jail for extorting me. I'm going to be married to my wife 40 years in April, and we've been through a lot together, including the death of her brother and the loss of our child. When you hurt your children and family, it's the greatest hurt anyone can receive, and I feel I've atoned for everything I've done and my family has forgiven me. So I care a lot more about my personal legacy than my basketball legacy."
Now both legacies look like they've been run over by a truck. Way back when, Pitino started his career at the University of Hawaii, where he was cited by the NCAA for eight rules violations. In the spring of 1989, just as it was trying to recover from its own scandal, Kentucky almost didn't hire Pitino because of those bygone infractions. The Wildcats' leading candidate raged against the NCAA's findings, denied any wrongdoing at Hawaii, and persuaded Kentucky to set aside its reservations and make him an offer.
"There's no one in this business with more integrity than Rick Pitino," the one and only said back then.
Look where all that integrity got him.