Rick Pitino Talks Louisville Ban, Escort Scandal and More in SI Interview

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIFebruary 8, 2016

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 20:  Rick Pitino the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals gives instructions to his team against the Florida State Seminoles at KFC YUM! Center on January 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has guided his team to a 19-4 record this season, but the university banned itself from the 2016 NCAA tournament Friday.  

Pitino spoke about athletic director Tom Jurich's decision to enact the ban, its impact on the team's two fifth-year seniors and the alleged escort scandal that led to the Cardinals coming under scrutiny in an interview Sunday with Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis.

Jurich's decision to prohibit Louisville from suiting up for March Madness surprised Pitino and left him in a tough spot as he tried to reassess goals for his 2015-16 squad:

I was shocked because while [the ban] was always something that was hovering, I've been gearing our team up for the NCAA tournament, talking about what we have to do to get a high seed. Every day, I was telling them a different story about the tournament. So the worst part was when I had to face the team. I met with Trey [Lewis] and Damion [Lee] at noon on Friday and the rest of the team at 12:30.

Tough as it was for Pitino and his players to accept the severe penalty of not playing in the postseason, the coach respected what Jurich did—though he did propose an alternative form of disciplinary action:

I don't disagree with anything that Tom Jurich does. I called him the next morning and said, "Tom, are we sure we want to do this? Do we want to take some time and think about it?" He said, "I know how down you are about this, but we've got to do it."

[...] The system is broken, there's no question about it. Now, if this team were responsible for this, then they don't deserve to play in the tournament. But if you're on Wall Street and your corporation does something wrong, the SEC comes in and fines you. My opinion is the school should be fined $10 million. They shouldn't be allowed to collect any money from the tournament. The coach should have to take a hit in his salary, 20% or 50% or whatever. The kids should not be penalized, but Tom has no choice. He has to comply.

Investigations are still ongoing by Louisville, the NCAA and law enforcement due to allegations made in a book published last fall, Breaking Cardinal Rules. Escorts were allegedly brought in to entertain recruits during official visits.

Katina Powell, who made the escort claims and implicated her two daughters as participating in multiple visits to Louisville, co-authored the aforementioned book. Andre McGee, who had served as the Cardinals' director of basketball operations, allegedly coordinated the operation.

Pitino told Davis he hasn't read the book but did speak about the last time he talked to McGee:

I talked to him only one time and he misled me. I was screaming, saying, "How can you do something like this?" He said, "Coach, all I did was have these women come over and they just listened to music." I said, “Andre, if you're lying..." He said, "No, coach, I'm telling you the truth." He said this woman was a party planner, that's how he met her. I know now all these things he told me were lies, but I didn't know him at the time. So I sent him one text message, which I've kept. I said, "Andre, I'll forgive you. We go back a long way. I love you, son. Just tell the truth."

The Cardinals' self-imposed NCAA tournament ban is, from Pitino's perspective, "as harsh a penalty as anything I've ever witnessed." Pitino also mentioned if McGee turns out to be the only one behind the alleged escort operation, a number of people around the Louisville program will be vindicated.

Since the NCAA is still conducting its investigation, there could be further consequences for Louisville in the 2016-17 season or beyond if the association uncovers additional violations.

Although Pitino has a roster featuring all freshmen and sophomores save for four players, those younger members of the team are already missing out on March Madness action this season. Maintaining team morale throughout the rest of 2015-16 will be quite a challenge, even for a leader like Pitino.