The last time I spoke to Rick Pitino, we were standing on a boat docked off the coast of Miami. He was nursing a cocktail, happily reminiscing about his 1996 UK national championship team, as I was there working on a documentary about that season. I’d spoken to him before, away from basketball, but I couldn’t help thinking that I’d never seen him so relaxed.
I doubt I’ll ever see him that way again.
The Pitino Era is over at Louisville, finished in a way none of us anticipated. But maybe we should have. Corruption in college athletics can leech onto any program. Adolph Rupp believed his mighty team was untouchable and had to bitterly swallow his words, following a point-shaving scandal that left his program tainted for years.
Pitino had managed to survive an extortion plot that sprang from his tryst involving a woman and an after-hours restaurant rendezvous; also, a previous recruiting scandal made public by another woman who supplied party girls and strippers to one of his assistants in a school dormitory.
Thanks in large part to a supportive athletics director, he just kept bouncing back. But there’s no coming back from an FBI investigation featuring one of your assistants, a five-star recruit and thousands of dollars.
“We got lucky on this one,” Pitino had told Terry Meiners on WHAS radio, after Brian Bowen II suddenly committed to Louisville – a school that hadn’t even tried to recruit him. Pitino told Meiners that an AAU representative had steered Bowen to U of L at the last minute. “We spent zero dollars recruiting a five-star athlete who I loved when I saw him play,” he said. “In my 40 years of coaching, this is the luckiest I’ve been.”
The irony of those words could knock you down.
A kid who might have become the rare (for Louisville) one-and-done, someone who could have jumped the Cardinals into the pre-season Top 10, if not the Final Four in March, turns out to be one of the major players in the scandal that takes down a Hall of Fame coach.
“Got lucky?” Pitino likely wishes he’d never heard of Bowen, right about now – and especially the AAU hustler, with pockets likely lined with Adidas dollars.
It’s been 20 years since Pitino left Lexington, figuring his work here was done. He had delivered on the promise he made at his introductory news conference, when he all but guaranteed that tickets to Kentucky basketball games would someday be worth more than oil and race horses. By the time he departed, UK was back on top of the basketball world, earning back-to-back trips to the national title game and the big trophy on the shelf earned in ’96.
He had taken a once-proud program that lay in ruins, breathed fire back into it and, with the help of Jamal Mashburn and the Unforgettables, dragged it back to respectability by challenging Duke in the ’92 NCAA East Region championship game. The following March, the Wildcats were back in the Final Four. Three years later, they were floating on air with the school’s sixth national title.
And he did it all without a hint of scandal. That was another promise by Pitino, who made the locker room off limits to everyone – including boosters.
After a well-paid side trip to the NBA, he was back in college basketball and he delivered for the Cards the way he did for the Cats. Louisville’s program hadn’t been shredded by NCAA sanctions but it had sunken below the standards Denny Crum had set, Crum becoming a victim of his own success.
It took Pitino four years but he got the Cardinals back to the Final Four, in 2005. And in 2013, a year after falling to Kentucky in the national semi-finals, he coached U of L to a national title. (Of course, that banner likely will have to come down, but that’s a different story, borne of a different scandal).
UK fans complained bitterly when he took the U of L job but they should know this: Had Tubby Smith left when the NBA dangled a job, Pitino was prepared to sign on for a second stint with the Cats. He took the Louisville job because, like most of us, he enjoyed being a Kentuckian.
Now, you couldn’t blame him if he left the Commonwealth and never came back. And if he does turn his back on his adopted state, one can’t help but recall the prop that Pitino used to try to rally the spirits of his players, after that bitter loss to the Blue Devils in 1992. From his valise, he pulled out a copy of Sports Illustrated, from 1989, the one featuring a UK player, back to the camera, head hanging in sorrow, under the headline, “Kentucky’s Shame.”
Based on the statement he released Tuesday night, it’s doubtful that Pitino, defiant until the end, will hang his head. But, sadly, the headline over what is likely the last chapter in his Hall of Fame college coaching career could well be, “Louisville’s Shame.”