Rick Pitino extortion trial: The full story

September, 20, 2010
Rick PitinoAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesWhile coaching the Cardinals to one of their best seasons yet, Pitino was under fire.

When it comes to the recruiting wars, Rick Pitino is on fire these days. The Louisville Cardinals coach just snagged Chane Behanan, the highest-ranked prospect in Kentucky, and is making a full-court press for Chicago's Quincy Miller, a top-fiver who seems to be leaning toward the River City.

In trying to make a statement that he still matters, Pitino, 58, is trying to do more than rebound from last year's early exit from the NCAA tournament. He's also trying to get past a federal trial that made him fodder for the late-night comics this summer.

In the trial of an ex-model who was convicted of trying to shake him down, the married Pitino admitted to having sex with the woman in a closed Louisville restaurant in 2003. After the woman, Karen Cunagin Sypher, was convicted of extortion and lying to the FBI on Aug. 5, the New York Post gleefully placed a bikini-clad photo of her on its cover to accompany the headline: "Sex for 15 seconds … Now 26 years in jail."

But with the exception of those few attention-grabbing moments, the criminal trial unfolded in relative obscurity. Federal court officials in Louisville issued 51 media credentials, yet many of them went unclaimed. Late-night comics who made fun of Pitino promoted only the most lurid wisps of the story.

To create a more complete public record of the case, The File decided to order the complete 208-page transcript of Pitino's testimony. What it shows is something that hasn't received a lot of attention: Pitino managed to have one of the best seasons of his coaching career while watching his personal life fall apart.

On March 6, 2009, Rick Pitino checked into his hotel in West Virginia, trying to stay focused on the last game of the regular season. The Cardinals had notched 16 wins in their past 18 games and were on a six-game winning streak.

A frequent face at those games was Karen Cunagin, an ex-car show model whom Pitino met at a Louisville restaurant late one night in the summer of 2003. After the owner left them alone, they had a brief and -- by Pitino's account -- "unfortunate" liaison. Three weeks later, she called him to say she was pregnant.

After a series of conversations, Pitino gave her $3,000 for what he described as health insurance. It was left to one of his longtime aides, Cardinals equipment manager Tim Sypher, to take her to a Cincinnati clinic to end the pregnancy.

That trip out of town proved fateful in more ways than one. Just as it sealed the end of the relationship between Cunagin and Pitino, it started one between Sypher and Cunagin. The two were married in 2004 and had a daughter.

"She went to our parties," Pitino testified. "She tailgated with us at football games. She came to basketball games. She was extremely cordial. She kissed me hello every time she saw me and she was very nice. … I kept the position that she's obviously a married woman and I didn't want to get involved in any deep conversations."

Then the phone calls started.

The first one came after Pitino landed in Louisville on Feb. 26, 2009, after a recruiting trip to Las Vegas. A man who claimed to know Cunagin Sypher said he knew she had been raped by Pitino six years before.

Pitino listened to it again and again with no idea who it could be. After he led a Cardinals practice that night, he summoned Cunagin Sypher and her husband to his office, desperate to get to the bottom of whose voice was on that message.

"You and I, you and I can deny it ever happened," he said, later insisting he meant their liason. Unaware that he was being secretly recorded, he added, "We can deny but this guy knows. So how can we deny it?"

Two days later, another call came. This time, the man on the phone threatened to go to the media.

When Pitino asked Cunagin Sypher who the caller could be, she wondered whether it might have been someone from the clinic where she had her abortion.

"She was leading me to the point that it could have been someone at the clinic who got those records," he testified. "… She was leading me onto other people."

By the time Pitino got to Morgantown on March 6, 2009, he was exhausted from all the practices and travel. When Sypher, his longtime equipment manager, walked into his hotel room with an envelope, Pitino eyed it suspiciously.

"He was very nervous and he came up and put the envelope down," Pitino testified. "And I said, 'What's that, Tim?' And he said, "It's -- it's -- I don't know if I want to be here when you open that.'"

Inside the envelope was a letter that began, "Everything I have named below to be put in my name only, Karen Cunagin Sypher." What followed was a list of demands: A house for herself, a car for her son, $75,000. It ended, "If all is accepted, I will protect Rick Pitino's name for life."

(In his own testimony, Sypher said he delivered the letter to Pitino not knowing what was in it. He also described his marriage at that point as having "deteriorated.")

The next day, Pitino got up for the last game of his season. The critics had written him off as recently as January, when the Cardinals, ranked third in the preseason, dropped a trio of nonconference games. But instead of panicking, he patiently waited for his young squad to mature. Now he was telling reporters, "I think our parts just caught up to the whole. Whatever shakes down, we've had a great regular season."

In the away atmosphere of WVU Coliseum, the Cardinals held firm, twice going up by 10 points in the first half and withstanding a furious second-half charge and a 3-pointer that could have tied the score. To anyone who watched him hug his players after the 62-59 win, Pitino looked like a coach at the top of his game.

Pitino rolled into New York on March 10 with a 5-seed for the Big East championship and the demands from Cunagin Sypher mounting. He testified that her mother called him on his cell phone to say, "My grandson has not gotten his automobile yet. When are you going to buy him his automobile?"

The coach tried to keep his composure. "Ma'am, I'm going to hang up this phone," he said.

Then he did.

Although the Cardinals swept the first two games of the tournament, they were too fatigued by the time they faced Syracuse to keep up their suffocating defense. But after falling behind by eight points in the first half, they became a different team. They went on a 20-3 run in the second half to shock Syracuse and make Louisville history by winning the school's first Big East title.

"These guys have bought into total team," an emotional Pitino said. "We did it in the toughest year in the history of the Big East to sweep both. I'm gushing with pride."

Afterward, Pitino gave Sypher a $10,000 bonus, hoping he would use it to pay for the car his wife was demanding. "I just said, 'Tim, I'm not buying any automobile,'" he testified. "I said, 'Here's your bonus. … You're his dad. You buy him the automobile.' And he did."

But it didn't stop the onslaught of demands.

On March 22, a lawyer representing Cunagin Sypher wrote Pitino a letter. It said that unless Cunagin Sypher received $10 million, she would file a civil suit and go public with the whole episode. The lawyer noted that "the unnecessary death of her unborn fifth son" was weighing heavily on his client. "I knew at that point, anything was going to be said," Pitino testified.

(The lawyer who wrote the letter, Dana Kolter, later admitted to having a sexual relationship with Cunagin Sypher before sending the letter on her behalf.)

In the 2009 NCAA tournament, the Cardinals made it to the Elite Eight before running out of gas in Indianapolis on March 29. A surging Michigan State team ran them around the court in a 64-52 slugfest, leading the Spartans' Travis Walton to proclaim: "Pressure is what Michigan State is all about."

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Karen Sypher
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeKaren Cunagin Sypher will face a maximum sentence of 26 years in prison.

Cunagin Sypher was ratcheting her pressure up to a whole new level, too.

A few days after the tournament exit, Pitino and his lawyers gathered for two hours in the Cardinal Hall of Fame Café in Louisville. The lawyers had just met with Cunagin Sypher, and their message was grim. They said that she was willing to accept $5 million to settle her claims. Unless she got it, she would go to the news media.

At that moment, Pitino realized he couldn't keep quiet any longer. "I had to meet with my athletic director," he testified. "I had to meet with the lawyers at the university, the PR director, along with my wife and family within a 48 hour period."

On Aug. 18, he issued a terse public statement through the university, saying, "I recently learned that the individual behind this extortion attempt has already gone to the media with false, defamatory and outrageous allegations in an attempt to pressure me to cave in to this scheme."

Afterward, he kept his head down, refusing to watch the TV news. "It was too disgusting to even watch and look at," he told the jury.

Six days later, Cunagin Sypher, was charged with extortion in federal court.

In a federal courtroom in Louisville this July, Cunagin Syphers' attorney tried to portray Pitino as bent on keeping the 6-year-old liaison out of the media, as if there were something wrong with that.

Pitino's lawyers, he pointed out, sent feelers to Cunagin Sypher about whether she would take $500,000 to go away.

But in the end, what the attorney, James Earhart, really did was unmask Pitino as a workaholic coach who cared more about winning a Big East title than almost anything else in his life.

"I don't think you understand what was going on in my life at that point," Pitino testified. "We were trying to win a championship. We worked tirelessly for four months to try -- and that was the most important thing in my life, not a false allegation made against me. … I worried about my family, but that wasn't -- at that point in time, I was concentrating on getting this basketball team to win a championship."

He went further later in his cross-examination, adding, "Because of what was going on with this blackmail, what was going on with scouting, we'd stay up all night. We were fatigued mentally and physically."

Once the jury got the case, it saw the whole episode for what it was: a clumsy soap opera involving adults who all should have known better. (The person who left the threatening voice mail messages turned out to be another of Cunagin Sypher's boyfriends, who struck a deal with prosecutors as soon as he was revealed.)

On Aug. 5, it took a jury five hours to find Cunagin Sypher guilty of two counts of extortion, two counts of lying to the FBI and one count of making a false claim of rape.

Pitino isn't a saint, but he has lost an awful lot for a guy the U.S. Attorney's Office classifies as a victim. He's the butt of late-night jokes. Critics have called for his firing. And the coach is sure to be a magnet for fan taunts once the Cardinals step outside Louisville's new $238 million arena this season.

But the worst part of all of this, he testified, was watching his son, Richard, leave his side at Louisville to take a job at Florida.

"I think the best two years I've had in probably 35 years of coaching … is the two years I've worked with [Richard]," Pitino testified. "That was the best. Every day to wake up with your son at a 6:45 meeting and go to practice with your son and -- it was a dream come true. And when I had to suggest to him to move on to another job, because I didn't want him to go through the humiliation and embarrassment, was very difficult."

Yet despite all of this, Pitino emerges with his basketball standing intact.

Besides Kentucky's Behanan, Pitino has commitments from prospects ranked 33rd and 73rd on the ESPNU 100: Wayne Blackshear and Zach Price, respectively.

Why would they want to play for a coach who had his guts torn out in open court?

Because if his testimony shows anything, it's that Pitino was able to coach at what might have been the highest level in his career while his personal life was falling apart.

Maybe it's not a silver lining -- there really is none here -- but it is something.

Shaun Assael | email

ESPN Senior Writer
• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
• New York Times best-selling author. New book in 2016: "The Murder of Sonny Liston: Las Vegas, Heroin & Heavyweights."


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