Rick Pitino is at the epicenter of a gut-wrenching scandal featuring the Louisville Cardinals, Adidas and the FBI.
On Wednesday, shit hit the fan for Rick Pitino and his Louisville Cardinals. It was reported by everyone how the FBI started an investigation focused on the corruption in college basketball. Pitino wasn’t the only one involved, but he was the biggest name. Tom Winter broke the news early Tuesday morning that said the FBI had “arrested several NCAA asst. basketball coaches in a corruption scheme.” Those four men were Auburn’s Chuck Person, Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson, Oklahoma State’s Lamont Evans and USC’s Tony Bland. In total, 10 men got charged. How Rick Pitino got involved in remarkable.
I’m not sure if you’re going to believe this, but the crux of this investigation was bribery and the exploitation of student-athletes, the foundation of the NCAA. Coaches would receive a sum for trying to sway students to attend a particular program, which would sign them with a specific apparel company and also with a specific agency. The FBI didn’t take any chances. According to ESPN’s Mark Schlabach, they started an investigation in 2015 complete with wiretaps, surveillance, undercover agents and cooperating witnesses. James Gatto, Adidas’ global director of sports marketing, was one of the guys the FBI caught up with.
In his piece, Schlabach writes how Adidas would slide money to the athletes’ families to persuade them to go to an Adidas-sponsored school, and that means they would sign with Adidas when turned pro. All throughout grassroots and college, sneaker companies are a huge deal, and Adidas has been doing incredibly well over the last couple of years. Nike is still the top dog, but, regarding product and innovation, Adidas has been kicking Nike’s you-know-what.
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The FBI’s complaint refers to a “public research university in Kentucky” as “University-6,” and Schlabach confirmed that “University-6” is, in fact, Louisville after a statement came from interim president Gregory Postel. What allegedly happened was that Adidas gave $100,000 to an unnamed recruit, “Player-10,” and his family to guarantee that he signed with “University-6.” That unnamed player is Brian Bowen.
Bowen, a five-star prospect, is the 19th-best recruit in 247Sports’ class. He committed to the Cardinals on Jun. 3, just one day after he came out and said Louisville was his top school. That’s not even the weirdest part. For nearly his entire recruitment, Michigan State looked like they were the favorite. A wise man once said that money talks; if that’s true, a six-figure payday screams.
“These allegations come as a complete shock to me,” said Pitino as we all rolled our eyes back into our heads. “If true, I agree with the U.S. Attorneys Office that these third-party schemes, initiated by a few bad actors, operated to commit a fraud on the impacted universities and their basketball programs, including the University of Louisville. Our fans and supporters deserve better, and I am committed to taking whatever possible steps needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable.” For Pitino, those steps were into the president’s conference room. The university put him on unpaid leave. You can only get away with so much. Eventually, all of your wrongdoings are going to catch up with you.
Up until this point, Pitino would’ve gone down in history as one of the greatest basketball coaches of all-time. It all began with assistant gigs in Hawai’i and Syracuse. His first head coaching job came at Boston University, and he spent five years with the team from 1979 to 1983. During that stretch, Pitino amassed a 91-51 record and led the Terriers to the Big Dance in his final year. He immediately got a shot in the NBA where he lasted just two seasons.
Pitino spent 1984 and 1985 as an assistant to the legendary Hubie Brown, and he fled the big leagues for Providence after the New York Knicks went 24-58 during the 1984-85 season. I’m not sure if he knew it, but college was where Pitino would have all of his success. Just two years after leaving the Knicks, Pitino led the Friars to the Final Four in 1987. He wanted to try his luck at the NBA level again. The Knicks brought him back — this time as the head coach.
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Pitino’s next stint was just as short as his one at Providence. The Knicks won 90 games during his two years. Both campaigns ended in playoff berths, but 1989 was by far Pitino’s best, and he was at the helm for a 52-win campaign that saw New York enter the second round. In the blink of an eye, he was back in the college ranks.
Kentucky came calling after parting ways with Eddie Sutton. It’s ironic, but Pitino got the job because the Wildcats had gotten slammed with numerous academic and recruiting violations that led to findings so egregious the school almost got the death penalty. Kentucky wasn’t eligible for postseason play during 1990 or 1991, the first two years of Pitino’s tenure, because of those violations. Once things were back to normal, the Wildcats went on a wild run. They rattled off six-straight tournament appearances, made three Final Fours (1993, 1996, 1997) and brought home the title in 1996. Before departing for the NBA (again? Again!), Pitino coached three Consensus All-Americans and compiled a record of 219-50.
His third trip to the league was with the Boston Celtics. To his credit, Pitino hung around Beantown for quite a bit (four years), except he left the success in Manhattan. The Team posted three consecutive sub-.500 campaigns and Pitino left 34 games into the 2000-01 season after starting the year 12-22. For the final time, he’d return to the NCAA. I don’t know why Pitino kept trying his hand with NBA coaching when it was evident that he was far better suited for the “amateur” ranks.
The Cardinals had tremendous success under Pitino, whose extended consistency continued the standard set by Hall of Famer Denny Crum, who retired in 2001 after 30 seasons at Louisville. They returned to the tournament in 2003. In total, the Cardinals have gone dancing 13 times, resulting in three Final Four appearances and a title in 2013. That stretch cemented Pitino’s place as a coaching icon. He’s not the greatest ever, but he’s up there.
Pitino’s 770 wins are 12th all-time, and his 416 with the Cardinals are third. Had his career continued, he would’ve eventually surpassed Peck Hickman and Crum, the only two who sit above him on Louisville’s ranking. It took Crum 30 years to attain 675 wins, which is an average of 22.5 a year. Pitino needed just 16 seasons to reach his win total, putting his average at 26.
In college basketball, the most dominant coaches have stellar runs with just one school. We connect John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski to UCLA and Duke, respectively. Pitino’s success at multiple institutions makes him an oddball. He’s the only coach in men’s basketball history to lead two teams to a national title — Kentucky and Louisville. But wait, it doesn’t stop there. Remember how I kept talking about Pitino’s Final Four appearances? Well, he’s also the only coach ever to take three different schools that far into the tournament. Up until recently, Rick Pitino had a professional resume that we could only revere. Now, do we let this latest scandal tarnish it? In all likelihood, I believe we do.
Let’s set the record straight — bribery in the NCAA isn’t a new thing. Rick Pitino, as evidenced by the four gentlemen who got arrested, wasn’t the only one involved in these activities, and we didn’t get an exact report on Pitino’s involvement until Thursday when it came out that he got listed as “Coach-2.”
College basketball has blown up over the last handful of years. That’s a direct result of the players. They’re learning the game at a younger age and devoting countless hours to it, and that goes against what a lot of middle and high school coaches think. When you have young kids, the ideal situation is to have them play multiple sports to figure out what they like and what they’re good at. Now, the NBA is so huge that everyone wants to be a basketball player, and it’s also the easiest sport to go out and practice. You don’t need much — a basketball and a cylinder and some shoes. The coaches, believing these kids have a future in hoops, start contacting them before they even start high school.
The world of recruiting is a mess. I can’t break down all of the rules, but it’s the responsibility of the coach to go about their business legitimately. If they don’t, the kid isn’t going to know. And I don’t want to blame the athlete for not fully grasping what they’re entering. No colleges recruited me in high school, but the process intrigued me. I tried to study all the practices and whatever, but how many kids are going to do that when the teams are going to you? A lot of the highly-touted prospects are only going to college because it’s mandatory. I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t engaged during their time there because, ultimately, they want to make it to the league. Now, the coaches come in. They start telling you about how they can make that happen, and that’s why the same schools are always bringing in the best guys.
Duke and Kentucky can sell their prospects on making it to the next level because they’ve consistently produced NBA talent. Their traditions are rich, and a lot of the guys going through those schools have become NBA stars — see Kyrie Irving, DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis. All of those kids have that same dream. But kids are also naive, and that’s not their fault. A lot of the time, they just want to play ball, and the ins-and-outs of college basketball recruiting are so intricate that it falls on the coach to help them navigate what’s right and what’s wrong, similar to how their parents tell them not to do drugs or cross the street without looking both ways. If the coach fails to do that, that young man isn’t going to know any better.
With Brian Bowen and Louisville (and similar cases), it’s different. Recruits know they’re not allowed to take money. But the staff also knows they’re not supposed to give money. I’m just speculating, but I would imagine a kid is more apt to take cash under the table if the coach comforts him and says “Hey, no one gets caught. You’re gonna be fine.”
Rick Pitino — and any other head coach — is the leader of his basketball team, and that includes the assistants. Anyone involved in Louisville’s recruiting process is connected to Pitino, whether it’s the prospect meeting with him face-to-face or an assistant conducting a trip on Pitino’s command. To say that he had no idea about what was happening isn’t believable because this isn’t the first scandal that he’s been involved in, and also because the FBI’s complaint says that he helped funnel $100,000 to a particular player. The other incidents, which were also egregious, could’ve and arguably should’ve resulted in Pitino’s firing.
Back in 2009, Pitino was a target for extortion. It was a mess. He had sexual relations with Karen Cunagin Sypher on Aug. 1, 2003, and she went to him a couple of weeks later saying she was pregnant and wanted an abortion, but she didn’t have health insurance. Pitino covered that with $3,000. Both parties delivered different stories about their encounter. Cunagin said that Pitino raped her on that date and then again a couple of weeks later. He said everything was consensual. Once the legal process concluded, the court found Cunagin guilty of extortion and lying to federal agents.
In the following days, Pitino apologized for his “indiscretion.” He was also going to remain the Cardinals’ coach and both the President and Athletic Director sided with him. A clause in Pitino’s contract stated that the university could’ve fired him for “acts of moral depravity or misconduct that damages the university’s reputation.” From the outside looking in, I think the deciding factor in Louisville’s decision to keep Pitino was that Cunagin made these claims without any evidence or credibility. Having your name next to anything rape or sexual assaulted related is enough for the Court of Public Opinion to hand out the death penalty, but we’re a lot more forgiving when the legal experts note that there were no grounds for those accusations to be made. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the last sexual incident that rocked the University of Louisville.
When the FBI leaked the news that the Cardinals were one of the teams bribing students, it was the second time this decade they were involved in a scandal like that. The first was much different.
I mentioned earlier that Pitino had missed the Big Dance just three times during his tenure with Louisville: 2002, 2006 and 2016. The most recent one was because of a self-imposed ban.
Katrina Powell came forward with claims that she and other escorts were paid to have sex with Louisville players and recruits from 2010-2014, and staffer Andre McGee was the one orchestrating everything. It was a monumental decision by the institution to impose the postseason ban, and everyone on the team was heartbroken; Pitino said it was a “complete shock,” and he denied any knowledge of the situation. Whether he knew or not is irrelevant because, as the leader of a team or organization, it’s your job to bring on high-character people who are going to abide by the rules and not undercut you. I also understand that it’s hard to keep tabs on everybody, but the NCAA is full of undercover misconduct, and the team might be numb to it.
Again, this is all speculation. They moved on, but the most recent crackdown was the final straw, and it’s rare to see somebody get more than three strikes.
Rick Pitino will forever be connected to these scandals whether or not his involvement is direct. In college basketball, the coach is the face of his program. It’s different in the NBA where the star player is in the spotlight, and the coach often gets pushed back. When the Cleveland Cavaliers lose, we look at LeBron James because he’s their leader, and someone in that role, whether he’s an athlete or CEO of a company, will always get the blame for the losses but won’t ever divert it to someone else.
This incident goes beyond Louisville. This move alters the entire college basketball landscape. Everything is going to change. I wouldn’t be surprised if the NCAA started falling apart, and Rick Pitino will be the person we connect it to. This scandal killed Pitino’s career. I don’t see any university wanting to take on the baggage he’s carrying, and no NBA team is going to bring him on because he hasn’t had success in that league.
There are two sides to Rick Pitino, and I’m curious to see how his legacy lives on now. Will he continue to be revered as one of the greatest coaches in basketball history? Or will the dark cloud that he fueled hover over him? Fans have no problem looking past indiscretions when it comes to people they love, just look at Kobe Bryant and Kevin Hart. Pitino, however, has done it on a consistent basis and turned himself into the Jordan Belfort of college basketball.
I’m too young to know how much celebrity Belfort had, but that didn’t stop people from thinking he was a sleazy stockbroker who stole money from innocent people. And that’s because he was. Pitino as a person may not be the same, but the acts committed under his watch were. All we can do is wait and see how Pitino redeems himself. More importantly, we have to wait and see if basketball fans allow Pitino to redeem himself.
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