The FBI federal probe into fraud happening in college basketball is only just beginning, but has already managed to force out one of the most well-known coaches in the sport. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was effectively fired from the program on Wednesday, along with the athletic director Tom Jurich. As more and more continues to come out of this investigation, the NCAA is starting to look less like The Hoosiers and more like The Big Short with a basketball. Needless to say, this is not a good look for the organization. Soon enough, fans will think even the most principled head coaches look shady. Long-tenured athletic directors will get accused in the media of being unscrupulous. Every recruitment will be overly scrutinized, in an attempt to bring down yet another top program. This is a shame for college basketball as a whole because not every successful head coach is corrupted and unethical. Pitino, however, is and has been for a long time.
Pitino’s first college coaching job was for the University of Hawaii back in 1974, where he eventually became the interim head coach. It only took three years into his first college job for the NCAA to place sanctions on the program for committing a whopping 64 infractions, eight of which Pitino himself was implicated in. Among other things, he was accused of giving his players used cars in exchange for season tickets and lying to both the NCAA and the University of Hawaii officials about his misconduct. The organization suggested to the school that Pitino be immediately dismissed, but the coach quickly left the program before he could be terminated. Even at 24 years old, Pitino was already breaking the rules seemingly without remorse or consequence. Fifteen years later, he still maintained the assertion that he was innocent. “I did nothing wrong,” he told reporters. “I don’t care what anyone says.”
Pitino managed to escape the controversy in Hawaii with his reputation still intact. Over the next few decades, he consistently won in several different venues. Aside from a few brief losses in the NBA, Pitino seemed to win everywhere he went. He quickly gained national recognition as one of the premier coaches in the sport, wowing fans with his fast-paced style of offense and signature full-court press defense.
Yet, coinciding with his meteoritic rise on the court was his personal turmoil off of it. In 2009, Pitino announced that he was the target of an extortion attempt. As details of the story broke, the star-studded head coach was forced to admit that he had cheated on his then-wife with the team’s strength trainer’s wife inside of a local restaurant and then paid her upwards of $3,000 to get an abortion. The public legal battle was as messy as it was embarrassing for Pitino, his family and the university he worked for. Despite the clause in his contract that allowed for Pitino to be fired for “acts of moral depravity and misconduct that damages the university’s reputation,” the embattled coach was kept on. He was still winning games for the program, after all, and that seemed to be the only thing that mattered to students and fans alike.
The troubling scandal had effectively been forgotten by the time the beloved head coach had won his second NCAA championship in 2013, this time in Louisville.
By doing so, Pitino had now become the first and only coach in NCAA Division I history to win a championship with two different schools. Life was good for Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals, but even more trouble was brewing on the horizon.
In 2015, the news broke that the Louisville basketball program was running an escort sex service on campus for the past five years to try to convince recruits to attend their school. The public university, which is located right in the heart of ultra-conservative Kentucky, was shocked and immediately placed a self-imposed postseason ban on the program, as the NCAA investigated how this possibly could have happened under Pitino’s watchful eye. Pitino insisted that he had nothing to do with it and was just as baffled as everyone else, but by then America was growing wary of his immorality.
It all finally came to a head last week when the FBI concluded that Pitino was responsible for illegally paying recruits to come play for his school. In retrospect, this seems obvious. For years, his program lured top-tier talent away from bigger name schools, including five-star recruit Brian Bowen, seemingly without even trying. In fact, the Cardinals were not even actively trying to recruit Bowen at the time. It seemed like one of the nation’s best young players just randomly decided to go to Louisville. Pitino had said at the time, “Well, we got lucky on this one… in my forty years of coaching, this is the luckiest I’ve been.” It turns out that he was not lucky and had actually paid Bowen $100,000 to come play for the Cardinals.
True basketball fans who long for integrity and professionalism in the game can only hope that this is the last they hear of Pitino. This man may know a lot about basketball, but still has ways to go when it comes to understanding basic ethics. Many people even feel that he should be banned from college basketball altogether, arguing that coaches are supposed to be mentors and that Pitino, with his long record of violations and immoral behavior, has no place being in charge of young, impressionable athletes. Cleaning up the NCAA’s reputation is going to be difficult, but firing Pitino is a great first step in doing so.
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