FBI Bribery Scandal Reveals Rick Pitino Wasn't Just a Hall of Famer, but a Phony

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagSeptember 28, 2017

FILE - In this Sunday, March 19, 2017, file photo, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino walks off the court after a 73-69 loss to Michigan in a second-round game in the men's NCAA college basketball tournament in Indianapolis. The NCAA is standing by its allegations against the Louisville men's basketball program and Pitino, saying the coach failed to notice
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Rick Pitino was essentially fired by Louisville on Wednesday, and it's safe to say most of his colleagues in the coaching profession didn't shed a tear. For years now they've known what the rest of the world is beginning to realize about Pitino.

He's a phony.

A hypocrite.

Or, in basketball terms...a bust.

Even Pitino's sycophants—the suck-ups and yes-men he's charmed and brainwashed the past few years—have to admit as much now.

A federal bribery investigation released Tuesday alleges that an executive from Adidas, which sponsors Louisville, agreed to funnel $100,000 to the family of 5-star recruit Brian Bowen in exchange for Bowen's signature with the Cardinals, according to a report in the Courier-Journal. In a report from CBS News, Pitino was identified in documents related to the investigation as "Coach-2", a person who allegedly played a role in navigating the money to Bowen.

Pitino, of course, pleaded ignorance to the situation, and his lawyer has proclaimed Pitino's innocence. It's a claim that makes other coaches laugh—just like they did two years ago, when Pitino said he didn't know that one of his assistants was hiring prostitutes and strippers to entertain recruits on official visits.

Yeah, Rick. Sure you didn't.

No longer can Pitino play the victim. Even the most charitable spectator would have to criticize how he let these improprieties happen under his leadership. Really, he's out of second chances and benefits of the doubt. Folks are sick of his shtick, which is probably why Louisville effectively canned Pitino on Wednesday morning.

Some would say that Pitino is the same as all of the other high-major coaches who are cheating, that he's simply moving along with the flow of traffic. But at least one Power Five coach on Wednesday disagreed.

"The difference," he said, "is that Louisville is driving the pace car."

He paused.

"In other words," the coach said, "even the schools who are cheating aren't paying $100,000 to get a kid. Louisville sets the bar high."

To be fair, it's unclear how long Louisville has been involved in this type of improper recruiting, and indeed, Pitino had not been censured by the NCAA until earlier this year for the allegations surrounding the use prostitutes to entertain recruits.

The shame of it all is that it didn't have to be this way. For all of his flaws off the court, Rick Pitino is a mastermind on it. He's an innovator, a Hall of Famer, a two-time NCAA champion and one of the greatest coaches the sport has ever known.

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

He didn't need to dip into those gray areas in recruiting. Perhaps more than any coach in America, he didn't need to play in the dirt. Pitino could win without doing so. He'd proven as much at nearly every coaching stop.

In 1987, Pitino led Providence to the Final Four despite having just one player (Billy Donovan) who would reach the NBA.

In 1992, he led a Kentucky team dubbed "The Unforgettables" to the Elite Eight, where it lost to eventual national champion Duke on Christian Laettner's infamous buzzer-beater. Jamal Mashburn was the only starter drafted from a lineup that featured three unheralded in-state seniors (John Pelphrey, Ritchie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus).

Pitino's 2013 Louisville squad won the NCAA title with just one 5-star recruit (Chane Behanan) and one starter who is currently in the NBA (Gorgui Dieng). Luke Hancock, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, was an unheralded transfer who began his career at George Mason. Guard Russ Smith, a first-team All-American the following year, didn't even rank among the Rivals.com 150 coming out of high school.

Pitino was magical with those types of players. He got them to perform above their heads. He coached them up. Pitino has led three schools to the Final Four and won NCAA titles at two institutions. He should be viewed as royalty, a true icon in the coaching profession, right up there with John Wooden and Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski.

Somewhere along the line, though, Pitino lost his way—and respect among his peers.

Yes, everyone knows he's an elite coach. But his persona off the court became annoying and tiresome. His act grew old.

In 2009, Pitino told Louisville police that he had sex with a woman on a table of an Italian restaurant. Pitino, who is married, was told by the woman (who would later marry Louisville's equipment manager) that he had impregnated her, and agreed to pay for her abortion. Two years ago, Pitino refused to take any of the blame for the prostitute scandal, though he was to be suspended by the NCAA for five games this season. And, laughably, this past summer, he had the gall to suggest Bowen, the alleged $100,000 recruit, simply fell into the Cardinals' lap.

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 08:  Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals is interviewed by the media outside the locker room after they won 82-76 against the Michigan Wolverines during the 2013 NCAA Men's Final Four Championship at the Georgia Dome on
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"We got lucky on this one," Pitino told WHAS-840 radio (per the Courier-Journal) after Bowen committed in June. "I had an AAU director call me and ask me if I'd be interested in a player. I saw him against another great player from Indiana. I said 'Yeah, I'd be really interested.'

"They had to come in unofficially, pay for their hotel, pay for their meals. We spent zero dollars recruiting a five-star athlete who I loved when I saw him play. In my 40 years of coaching this is the luckiest I've been."

As bad as the violation—or, in this case, the crime—may have been, the phoniness makes it even worse. Sometimes it's just better to keep your mouth shut. Numerous coaches thought the same thing at the Final Four in 2013, when Pitino was asked about Mike Rice, the Rutgers coach who'd been fired that week after video surfaced of Rice verbally berating his players and throwing basketballs at their ankles.

"I don't know what brought that out in a person," Pitino said in an ESPN interview. "I hope he gets those issues taken care of."

Interesting comments from a coach who dog-cusses and screams at his players with such rage and venom that he looks peaked and poised to either vomit or pass out.

"I think he's an assh--e," a mid-major head coach said. "He's pompous and he just acts like he's better than everyone, like everyone should bow down to him. He's just not likable.

"Say what you want about (Kentucky coach John) Calipari…at least he's friendly and funny and doesn't act all high and mighty. Everyone's sick of Pitino's act."

Perhaps that's why few people came to Pitino's defense Wednesday. Fans don't want to hear him play the victim card anymore. Reporters are tired of his scoldings, and frankly, it's all a shame.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 19:  Head coach Rick Pitino of the Louisville Cardinals  reacts as Quentin Snider #4 looks on against the Michigan Wolverines in the first half during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bankers Li
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Pitino could've coached five or six more years, won another national title with the Cardinals and been remembered as one of the best coaches in history—a true legend.

Instead, for Pitino, it's the end of an era at Louisville.

Or rather, the end of an error.


Jason King is a senior writer for B/R. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. In both 2015 and 2016, King was tabbed as one of the top five beat writers in the nation by the APSE. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR


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