During his four-plus decades as a college and NBA coach, Rick Pitino has experienced his fair share of ups and downs. Yet, he has never experienced a week like last week. On Monday, his Louisville Cardinals defeated then-No. 2 North Carolina, 71–65. On Thursday, he learned that his athletic director, Tom Jurich, had decided to ban Pitino’s team from the 2016 NCAA tournament. On Friday, Pitino participated in a press conference to announce the bombshell decision. And then on Saturday, his Cardinals went back to their winning ways, blowing out Boston College at home to improve to 19–4 (8–2 ACC).
Jurich said he made his decision because of information that had come to light during the school’s in-house investigation of the book Breaking Cardinal Rules, which was published last fall. The book’s co-author, Katina Powell, described multiple incidents during which she brought prostitutes (including her daughters) to a campus dorm to entertain recruits during their official visits to Louisville. Powell alleges that Andre McGee, Pitino’s former player at Louisville who was serving as the Cadinals’ director of basketball operations, arranged the parties.
From the moment the book’s contents were made public, Pitino has staunchly insisted he did not know about these parties, and he has expressed doubt that the events that Powell described actually happened. Now, in the wake of the postseason ban, Pitino must do his best to coach his team for the remainder of the regular season and contain the fallout from this penalty, which has a particularly painful impact on the team’s two fifth-year seniors, Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Pitino is also left to wonder what will come of the investigations still being conducted by the school, the NCAA and law enforcement.
On Sunday night, Pitino discussed these matters at length with SI.com. Calling from Durham, North Carolina, where his team will play Duke on Monday night, Pitino’s tone was measured throughout the conversation. He showed flashes of defiance, but for the most part he sounded more resigned than angry. He is also sticking to his story: If the things that Powell described in her book did happen, then Pitino says he did not know. Though he recognizes that many people believe he should no longer be the coach at Louisville, he says he wants to stay on the job and do whatever he can to help the school and the program get through this troubling time.
Sports Illustrated: How did you find out the school was issuing this postseason ban?
Rick Pitino: I was in my office on Thursday. Tom Jurich, [outside investigative counsel] Chuck Smrt and [sports information director] Kenny Klein came to see me. I thought maybe they wanted to ask me a few questions. I didn’t think the news would be this bad. The problem is they couldn’t tell me anything. They said, “We’ve got information that is going to lead us to make a decision to put a postseason ban on this team.” I just put my head into my hands. I asked, “When did this come about?” Chuck Smrt interrupted and said, “You haven’t been interviewed yet, so we can’t tell you anything.”
SI: Fair to say you were shocked?
RP: I was shocked because while it 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.
SI: It sounds like from your comments over the weekend that you disagree with this decision. Do you?
RP: 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 mistake they made was they didn’t have him on the committee. That was a very, very substantial mistake because this would have happened weeks ago. Because once Tom was informed of something, he would not sweep it under the carpet. He has to address it. He corrects things right away.
SI: You said in your press conference after Saturday’s win over Boston College that you did not believe postseason bans were fair. Why do you feel that way?
RP: 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.
SI: Wouldn’t it be more fair to the current players to put the postseason ban in place for 2017? That way the seniors could play this year, and the younger players could transfer if they want.
RP: I don’t make that decision. Tom has to go by the rules. When he knew about the violation, he couldn’t say, “We’re not going to jail now, we’re going in six months.” This is what the NCAA wants every university to do. They don’t want you to take the penalty down the road.
SI: So as of now, you do not know the information they found that led to this decision?
RP: No. I don’t know and they won’t let me know. They’ve kept me in the dark on everything.
SI: Do you know when the school committee plans to interview you?
RP: I haven’t been notified yet, but it will be soon. I really can’t shed too much light on anything, but I’m looking forward to talking to them.
SI: When the book first came out, you cast a lot of doubt on whether Katina Powell’s story was true. Is it right to conclude based on this decision that at least some of the events she described in her book did take place?
RP: I didn’t read the book, but I know that Eric Crawford [a reporter at WDRB 41 in Louisville] found out a lot of inaccuracies. He took it chapter by chapter and page by page and put holes in the book. So I don’t know what the book said, but I know 11 women are suing her for saying they did this.
SI: You have [said] from the beginning that if anything like this was going on, you knew nothing about it. Frankly, there are lot of people who believe that either you knew or you didn’t want to know, but either way you are responsible because you created a culture which allowed these things to happen. What’s your response to that?
RP: First of all, I don’t believe there’s one coach that ever coached college basketball at this level that would ever tolerate it for one second. Forget me, I’m talking about any coach who has ever coached.
The reason that I didn’t know was everybody had so much fear of what would happen if I ever found out. That’s why they were sneaking in through a side door. They all know their jobs, their scholarships would have been pulled if I ever found out.
The second thing is, this took place in a dormitory that I built in my brother-in-law’s name in honor of his legacy after [he was killed on] 9/11. I wouldn’t let anybody break a chair in that place without coming down hard on them. If the media were to interview any of my former players from Kentucky, anybody from Providence, anybody from BU, they will tell you I am a stickler with the rules.
But I will tell you, I do understand this thinking because I had the same reaction at first. Immediately I started accusing people from managers to everybody else, “How could you not know? You never saw anything? This is impossible.” So I did the same thing. And their answer was, she’s saying this happened maybe 20 times over four years, so that’s four or five times a year behind closed doors. How the hell are we gonna know about that?
Andre McGee knew that if I ever found out, he would be on the next plane out of Louisville.
SI: So why would he do it—assuming he did it?
RP: That’s the only thing I can’t understand. I had an interesting story. I went to vote and while I was standing in the polling area, a lady came up to me and said she grew up with this woman [Katina Powell], and she told me a bunch of stories I can’t repeat to you. I said to her, “Look, ma’am, tell me something. You knew Andre. Why did he do this?” She said, “It’s obvious, coach. He came to this neighborhood and he was treated like LeBron [James]. Everybody wanted to get in with him because he was an ex-player at Louisville. He let it go to his head. He wanted to be the ring leader.” That’s the only explanation I’ve gotten from anybody that makes any sense, because he would never get any credit for a recruit coming to Louisville. He was the operations guy. Ops guys don’t get credit for recruits.
SI: How many times did you talk to Andre after the book came out?
RP: 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.”
That was the last time I spoke to him. He got himself a lawyer and I never spoke to him again. The NCAA also asked me not to speak to him until the investigation is over.
SI: One question that is hanging out there is, where did he get the money to give to the women? Are you concerned about where that might lead?
RP: I’m really not. That’s the one area I don’t think was true. Andre McGee was one of the cheapest individuals around. If it was his turn to buy a round in a tavern, he would go to the restroom. Everybody joked about it. There’s just no way anybody believes that that amount of money was given to this woman.
SI: You’ve been criticized for skipping out on ACC media day after this story broke, as well as on your postgame press conference at Kentucky. Isn’t it easier to deal with questions at these events as opposed to dealing with the flak you get for not going?
RP: Not at all, because the legal counsel and people told me not to go [to media day]. They said, “You’re only going to say no comment, so don’t do it.” As far as the Kentucky game, that was ridiculous. I said before the game I’m not going to speak to the media. It’s an environment that’s very emotional for me and I didn’t want to deal with it. Normally, I like going to press conferences. I like dealing with the media.
SI: Many people are bringing up the events of 2009, when you were forced to admit to an indiscretion with a woman who was extorting you, and they are using that episode to make the case that you should no longer be the coach at Louisville. What is your response to that?
RP: I’d rather not address that. That was 10 years ago. I paid a very heavy price for that because I hurt the people I love the most. When it comes to what I do between the basketball lines, I’m someone who has been totally compliant as a head coach. I go overboard when it comes to following the rules.
SI: So are you fully committed to remaining as the coach at Louisville?
RP: You know, I do the same thing every year. I take some time and ask, Did you have fun? Is it something you want to continue doing? And every year for 15 years, I’ve said I want to come back. Now these circumstances are different than most, but I’m more passionate today than I’ve ever been. I think I enjoy teaching as much as I’ve ever enjoyed it. If there was a time where if I believe in my heart that Louisville is better off without me, I would leave yesterday.
SI: There is a lot more to this process that is still playing out. The school has to finish its investigation, the NCAA still has to weigh in, and then there’s the criminal investigation, which is ongoing. How concerned are you that down the road there will be more revelations, and therefore more penalties?
RP: First of all, I think what we did was as harsh a penalty as anything I’ve ever witnessed. I don’t know how much more you can levy on this school. If it comes out that it was a one-man operation and nobody else knew anything about it, what would you say then? Now if there’s something else that we don’t know about, then that’s another problem we have. But I truly think a lot of us will be vindicated when the NCAA comes out with their findings. People at Louisville know that I am telling the truth.