Rick Pitino said he will be thinking about his three departing players Tuesday night against Georgia Tech, the final Louisville home game of the season, and not about the possibility that he'll be going out the door with them. This will be a night for the graduate transfers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, and for Dillon Avare, the walk-on son of the coach's business manager who is on schedule to earn his degree in three years and to play on scholarship next season for Eastern Kentucky.
This will not be a night, Pitino said, to think about the terms of his own near-future or distant goodbye. But that time is coming. Pitino didn't shoot down the claim that he'd started privately discussing plans to step down at season's end this past fall, just weeks after his program was rocked to its core. Nor did he reject another contention that the university's decision to institute a postseason ban last month in the wake of an alleged pay-for-sex scandal inspired Pitino to waver on his plans to leave, in part to avoid appearing as if he were fleeing a mess made on his watch.
Instead, Pitino offered up an explanation for what his confidants were reporting. He said he'd told them of a conversation he had with a cancer-stricken Jim Valvano, who had advised him to never let an investigation of his program impact his health.
"Jimmy said that NCAA investigation [at NC State] broke down his immune system," Pitino recalled. "I told people that I was so saddened by what happened here, that I wasn't sleeping, that it had taken a big toll on me. ... But I said, 'I'm not going to let this thing get me sick,' and it hasn't gotten me sick.
"This team rejuvenated me in a great way, because I have awesome guys who are playing for nothing still giving me incredible effort each night. I'll step away from the game after the season and say, 'Are you having fun?' I'll look at it and do some thinking and then let the chips fall where they may."
How likely is it that the chips will fall in a way that persuades Pitino to end his 15-year run at Louisville?
"I think anything's possible," Pitino said. "I doubt it. I don't think it's probable. I just was blindsided, disgusted and saddened by this whole thing. ... I thought we'd be playing for the national title and going to the Final Four this year, and it was a shock that it was taken away.
"I'll ask myself after the season if Louisville is a better place with Rick Pitino as coach, and if the answer is yes, I'll do what I've done for 15 years and come back and fight for a championship, and that's what I plan on doing. But if the time comes that I feel Louisville is better off without me, I'm without ego now." Rick Pitino
"I'll ask myself after the season if Louisville is a better place with Rick Pitino as coach, and if the answer is yes, I'll do what I've done for 15 years and come back and fight for a championship, and that's what I plan on doing. But if the time comes that I feel Louisville is better off without me, I'm without ego now. I'd recommend this job to everybody. The town is great, the AD is off-the-charts fantastic and loyal, and I have a super team coming back. But if I think Louisville will be better off without me, anything's possible."
We'll all see soon enough what Pitino decides is possible at age 63, with more than 1,000 college basketball games behind him as a head coach. Pitino confirmed that he wants to coach next season and beyond ("I don't think I can live a day without coaching; it's in my blood," he said), and multiple sources said if he leaves Louisville, he would be willing to listen to NBA offers.
One plausible scenario would have Pitino and his good friend, AD Tom Jurich, reaching a mutual understanding that it's all over at Louisville, and that when it comes to sex scandals in college sports, it's two strikes and you're out (we'll get to the first strike in a bit). Pitino and Jurich would have to figure out what to do with the 10 years and reported $50 million left on the coach's contract, but it's worth remembering Pitino walked away from the $23 million left on his Boston Celtics deal before taking the Louisville job.
He doesn't need the money, and maybe he doesn't need the aggravation, either. His little verbal dustup with fans during Saturday's loss at Miami came two months after he appeared to make an obscene gesture toward Kentucky fans, and three days after Pittsburgh students threw fake dollar bills when Pitino was introduced. It was their way of mocking him for the money a former Louisville director of basketball operations, Andre McGee, allegedly paid escorts to strip for, and have sex with, players and recruits in a dormitory named after Pitino's late brother-in-law.
It has been a mean season for Pitino, who vehemently denied having any real-time knowledge of the allegations Katina Powell made in her book, "Breaking Cardinal Rules," that are now the subject of university, NCAA and law enforcement investigations. Though McGee, the former Pitino player and staffer at the center of Powell's allegations, denied paying dancers to have sex with players and recruits, Pitino said he now believes McGee did "some scurrilous things" and university president James Ramsey stated it is "reasonable to conclude that violations had occurred in the men's basketball program in the past."
In other words, Louisville could be facing heavier sanctions in the not-too-distant future, and Pitino -- if he continues in college coaching -- could face the same nine-game suspension served this season by SMU's Larry Brown and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. But no matter what move Pitino makes, he should know that he has committed a series of unforced errors against his own historical standing in the sport.
Back to that first strike -- the 2003 sexual encounter with a woman in a closed restaurant, a woman who later used $3,000 Pitino gave her (he said the money was intended for health insurance) to pay for an abortion; the woman would marry the Pitino aide who accompanied her to the clinic. Karen Cunagin Sypher was found guilty in 2010 of trying to extort cash and gifts from the Louisville coach to keep their encounter secret and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Though a jury found him to be the victim in the case, the public airing of the sordid details caused Pitino great embarrassment. Before Sypher's conviction, Pitino showed interest in the Sacramento Kings job in 2009 (the Kings hired Paul Westphal), and expressed hope to friends the following year that New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn, whom he'd tried to lure to the Boston Celtics years earlier, would consider him for the Nets job (Thorn hired Avery Johnson). Pitino appeared to be looking for a fresh start.
This case is different. This case isn't about Pitino's behavior, but it is about his control, or lack thereof. Even if Pitino didn't know his players were being treated to nearly two dozen parties with strippers and prostitutes between 2010 and 2014, it's his program and, in many ways, his campus. Pitino is a big star in Louisville, almost as big as he was in Lexington as coach of the more storied Kentucky Wildcats. What does the alleged behavior of McGee and Louisville players say about Pitino's judgment (in hiring McGee) and the culture he created inside his program? If McGee did indeed arrange these parties, did he find license to do so in Pitino's own past recklessness, which went unpunished by the university?
On the first case, Pitino said, "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. 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."
On the second case, Pitino said, "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."
Nobody could ever question the basketball side of his program. He remains the only coach to win national titles at two different schools, and the only recognized coach to reach the Final Four at three different schools (John Calipari's trips with Memphis and Massachusetts were vacated).
"Rick is the first guy I hired at Syracuse in 1976 and he's in the Hall of Fame," Boeheim said by phone. "There was never a doubt in my mind he was going to be a special coach because he had the energy, the knowledge and the will to win. Mike [Krzyzewski] has separated himself a bit from the other coaches in his generation, but Rick is right up there near him on a very short list of coaches. He's won everywhere with all different kinds of talent, different schools, different levels, and if he got Tim Duncan in the [1997 NBA] draft like he thought he would, he'd still be coaching the Celtics. That would've changed the entire basketball universe."
"He's definitely not done in coaching, and I don't see him leaving Louisville. They'll get through this like we had to get through it. Get it resolved as quickly as possible, and move on from there. They're always going to have good players, and if Rick Pitino has good players he's going to win." Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim
But Pitino's career is no longer about his staggering success with broken-down college programs and the broken-down New York Knicks, and how his rebuilding jobs reduced his Celtics failure to a relatively insignificant outlier. It's also about a moral compass gone awry at a place -- a college campus -- where coaches forever identify themselves as teachers using life lessons to shape students into responsible adults.
"To me," said Boeheim, who lost 101 career victories to recent NCAA sanctions, "people are going to think whatever they think about your legacy and there's nothing you can do about it. Some people will say good things about Rick, some will say bad things, and that's just the way the world works. You can only do the best you can, and Rick's a great coach on both ends of the floor who develops players and who's done as good a job as anyone anywhere.
"He's definitely not done in coaching, and I don't see him leaving Louisville. They'll get through this like we had to get through it. Get it resolved as quickly as possible, and move on from there. They're always going to have good players, and if Rick Pitino has good players, he's going to win."
But win where? The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in January that Pitino had interest in the same UNLV job he turned down 15 years ago, and Vegas is one university and marketplace that believes in second and third chances. On the NBA front, Memphis Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace, whom Pitino hired in Boston, remains a devoted admirer, but chances are Dave Joerger will make it to the final guaranteed season on his deal next year. The alternatives around the NBA appear far more attainable for Calipari, now the kind of powerhouse college candidate Pitino was in the '90s.
Either way, Pitino's wife, Joanne, will have a strong say in whatever he chooses to do. She talked him out of taking a Michigan job he'd already accepted in 2001, and persuaded him to fill the Louisville opening instead.
No matter what Pitino says publicly (or privately) about his status, expect there to be some zigging and zagging from here to decision day. After rebuffing overtures from the Nets while still coaching Kentucky in 1996, Pitino called a news conference to confirm a New York Daily News report that he remained interested in pursuing the Nets' opening. Pitino met with Nets officials that night at an airport hotel, and all but accepted their offer before leaving on a golf trip to Ireland. He soon took a fresh divot out of New Jersey's plans and phoned in his final rejection from overseas.
Before taking the Celtics job, Pitino had repeatedly turned down their offers before owner Paul Gaston showed up at his Westchester home one day and offered $50 million over 10 years.
"I wanted time to think about it," Pitino recalled Monday night. "But Jim O'Brien said, 'Rick, are you crazy? It's $50 million.'"
Pitino took the money, lost Duncan in the draft lottery and was left searching for a new job four years later.
"I made the right moves in my career," he said, "except that one time."
Maybe Pitino has one more move left in him, maybe not. Tuesday night won't be the time to make that choice, not when he has three kids playing their final home game.
But whenever he does leave Louisville, Pitino won't be judged only by his winning percentage, the tournament runs and the endless parade of ballplayers he improved against the odds. The genius coach also has to take a hit for what happened outside of his gym, and he has only himself to blame.