You have to appreciate UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma's willingness to address virtually any topic and give you his honest opinion. So many coaches won't do that. His comments are typically frank, funny, insightful and illuminating. And he's been that way all along, meanwhile building one of the greatest programs in all of college sports history.
But sometimes Auriemma opts to tread on ground that you think he'd do better to avoid -- even for someone so fearlessly opinionated. Such was the subject of Rick Pitino's future employment.
On Barstool Sports' Pardon My Take podcast Wednesday, Auriemma was asked about a series of hypothetical situations. One of them included: Would you hire Pitino, the former Louisville men's basketball coach?
Yes, Auriemma said, he would, if he had a job opening. Then when asked about Pitino's problematic past, Auriemma said, "Well, I mean, everybody's got baggage. You know, what are you going to do? You know, he did his time. He's serving his sentence. He lost a great, great job. And you know what? So what. That's a life sentence? I don't know. I don't think so."
Let's be clear: No, not everyone has the baggage that Pitino has. His isn't just a suitcase or two; it's a truckload of baggage, both professional and personal. Pitino was relieved of his duties at Louisville last month, despite protestations from his lawyers that he had no knowledge of alleged fraud and corruption in recruiting. Those allegations are being investigated by the FBI as part of a large-scale probe into men's basketball.
This wasn't the first time Pitino claimed ignorance as a defense; he also said he knew nothing about the alleged sex-for-recruits program that resulted in a self-enforced 2016 postseason ban for Louisville and caused the NCAA to charge Pitino with failure to monitor his program.
Pitino had been suspended for the first five games of this ACC season before the latest scandal broke and cost him his job.
This is not about whether Pitino deserves a "second chance." He's well past that. He has had many chances; he has been absolved before because he wins at the college level. And that's likely what Auriemma admires: Pitino's success, his pure ability as a basketball coach. They're close in age -- Pitino is 65, Auriemma 63 -- and Auriemma likely can relate to what makes Pitino tick as a hoops guru.
The thing is, there's more to the job -- a lot more -- than just the basketball part. Whatever you think of "pay-for-play" with college athletes, it's been alleged that rules were broken at Louisville over a considerable period of time, and the head coach's defense is that he didn't know about it.
Would Auriemma ever offer up that kind of statement about anything that happened at UConn? Having covered his program for the past couple of decades, I'd say no. He's a "the buck stops here" kind of person. So I'm not sure why he would be willing to give Pitino yet another benefit of the doubt.
Auriemma has won 11 NCAA titles, coached two Olympic teams to gold medals and has seen his program stock the WNBA with some of its greatest players, including the league's all-time leading scorer (Diana Taurasi) and all-time assists leader (Sue Bird).
Moreover, Auriemma and the Huskies have taken great pride in the standards they set and what they mean to their community, their state and their sport. As stinky as everything surrounding the Louisville men's basketball situation is right now, why would Auriemma even want a whiff of that around him?
Then again, you can go back to it being a hypothetical question asked on a podcast, and Auriemma's general willingness to chat. Maybe Auriemma didn't consider the many implications of his answer. But earlier this fall, during a USA Basketball team training camp he was attending, Auriemma offered a serious take when asked about the FBI probe into Louisville and other men's college programs.
"Am I surprised all this has come out? No," he said. "But I'm surprised at where it's coming from. If the NCAA announces, 'You're not going to believe what we uncovered,' people would say, 'Of course that's happening. That's been happening for a hundred years.' But the fact that it's coming from the FBI, that puts it in a different light, and it's scary for those people involved."
Ultimately, if Pitino is away from the coaching world for a while, it won't be because of his actual coaching skills, but because of everything else he failed to manage to a reasonable expectation.
Auriemma may empathize with him for a variety of reasons. Auriemma follows all sports very closely and has several friends within men's basketball. He may see the landscape of men's college hoops through a lens of cynicism and pragmatism that is absent when he views the women's side.
But Pitino's exile -- however long it lasts -- at this point is deserved. Auriemma shouldn't feel any need to give him a pass on any of it, hypothetical or not.