Opinion: Louisville's Pitino Has Run Out of Chances

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The other shoe has dropped, and it bears three stripes.

If you've wondered how Rick Pitino has recruited so well while his University of Louisville basketball program awaits NCAA sanctions, the most logical and cynical answer would appear to be correct: Cheating.

If Adidas bought Brian Bowen's commitment to Louisville on the installment plan — in four payments totaling about $100,000 — that explains how a five-star forward suddenly landed in Pitino's lap. Neither Bowen nor Pitino were mentioned by name in the documents released Tuesday by the FBI, which has already announced 10 arrests in an ongoing investigation into college basketball corruption, but all of the clues related to "University-6" and "Player-10" lead to the same damning conclusion.

In the wake of the Katina Powell/Andre McGee scandal, with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions planning to vacate Louisville's 2013 NCAA championship, Pitino's program appears to have maintained its competitive edge by cutting legal and ethical corners. The story Pitino told on Terry Meiners' radio show in June now sounds like a fraudulent fairy tale.

"We got lucky on this one," Pitino said then. "I had an AAU director call me and ask me if I'd be interested in a great 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."

The FBI tells a much different and more persuasive story, of Adidas' James Gatto and Merl Code conspiring with sports agent Christian Dawkins and financial adviser Munish Sood to funnel about $100,000 to the family of "Player-10," to get the player to commit to play at "University-6."

The University of Louisville has confirmed its inclusion in the FBI investigation and pledged its cooperation. Pitino issued a statement Tuesday evening asserting, "These allegations come as a complete shock to me," and expressing his commitment to take "whatever steps are needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable."

As the man ultimately responsible for the U of L basketball program, Pitino can only duck so much of that responsibility after two years dominated by a previous scandal. Whether it can be demonstrated that he had direct knowledge of the activities alleged by the FBI can no longer be the litmus test about whether he can or should keep his job. There is simply too much scandal surrounding this program to justify preserving the status quo; too much implausible deniability to get past.

Whatever chance U of L had of softening its NCAA sanctions on appeal has surely evaporated. Tuesday's news is sure to spark another investigation likely to bring additional and more severe penalties to a repeat offender.

It always seemed improbable that Pitino would have condoned sex parties at Minardi Hall to ensure visiting recruits left town with smiles on their faces. The risk was too great in relation to the potential return, and a Hall of Fame coach was sure to see that the danger of detection could leave a permanent stain on his career.

Yet whatever benefit of the doubt Pitino has banked over the years, he is now overdrawn. His culpability as an assistant coach in infractions committed at the University of Hawaii, his tawdry affair with Karen Sypher, the misdeeds of Andre McGee and this newest corruption case adds up to a critical mass that cannot be easily explained away or excused.

Meiners has alluded to discussions during the summer in which Louisville Board of Trustees chairman David Grissom asked interim President Greg Postel to fire Pitino. At the time, the financial terms of the coach's long-term contract could have posed an enormous obstacle to making that change. But if Pitino cannot be convinced to resign for the good of all concerned — and his resignation still seems the most probable scenario at this point — firing him for "just cause" has now become a more plausible option.

"Employee is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all assistant coaches and administrators who report, directly or indirectly, to him," Pitino's contract reads. "Employee shall promote an atmosphere of compliance, academic integrity, and ethical conduct within his program and shall monitor the activities of all assistant coaches and administrators involved with the program who report, directly or indirectly, to him."

The FBI's investigation is ongoing. The NCAA, presumably, will be opening a new investigation soon. The University of Louisville needs to bring a close to as much of this matter as it can immediately. If possible, by the end of the day.

Sullivan is a columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network.

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September 27, 2017


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