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Untangling the powerful web surrounding Louisville's Rick Pitino

Stationed at the border of Rick Pitino's inner circle, Vinny Tatum is what you might call a gatekeeper.

At his press conference Wednesday, Pitino made no mention of Tatum, of course. The legendary coach spent his time admonishing the media and brushing off the past, calling "everything that has been printed and reported ... a total fabrication." Lies, that is, except for one thing: what he had told us about "the mistake that [he] made." Incidentally, that is precisely where Tatum comes in.

A former student manager under Pitino at the University of Kentucky, Tatum, 34, has worked as the coach's executive assistant for six years and holds the title of "director of the Yum! Center," the two-year-old edifice where Louisville's basketball offices are housed. The native of Harrodsburg, Ky., coordinates Pitino's personal schedule, occasionally serves as his boss' designated driver, determines travel arrangements, and is the point-man whom corporate giants -- Microsoft, for instance -- must contact if they wish to hear Pitino wax poetic on success and "group integrity."

But Tatum is also familiar with gatekeeping of a more literal kind. On the evening of Aug. 1, 2003, he was reportedly the only other person inside Porcini, an upscale Louisville Italian restaurant, as Pitino (married, Catholic, a father of five) had unprotected sex with Karen Cunagin (then a divorced, 43-year-old mother of four and a former model/auto glass saleswoman) at a table by the bar. Porcini's owner, Tim Coury, had entrusted the place to Pitino, his friend, after closing for the night. Pitino says he and Cunagin were both drunk -- he'd been celebrating the hiring of new assistant Reggie Theus -- and that the sex was consensual; Cunagin (now Karen Sypher) alleged she was raped. Authorities have since declined to prosecute the case, citing insufficient evidence.

So Tatum watched the door for his boss, but he did not quite stand guard -- he had actually "lain down out of site [sic] of [Pitino] and Sypher," according to the police report. As part of an investigation into Sypher's eventual alleged extortion of Pitino this year, Tatum would also tell the FBI that he heard "the sounds of two people that seemed to be enjoying themselves during a sexual encounter."

Such details are both lewd and horribly ironic. Yet the involvement of a trusted associate like Tatum is not just some seamy footnote to the incident which now hangs over the Louisville campus like so many "Welcome Students!" banners. In fact, when I visited in the wake of the scandal to report a story for Sports Illustrated, the vigilant network of subordinates that surround Pitino struck me as even more intriguing than the adultery itself. Although Pitino's preferred press conference phrase was "an indiscretion six years ago" -- an attempt to shrink the mess down to one moment of weakness -- the epically bizarre aftermath hints at how a charismatic leader and his cronies operate behind closed doors.

******

"Don't forget the spousal equation. If you hire someone who comes with an egomaniacal husband or a moody wife, it will have an effect on your worker's productivity. Get to know them, too."

-- Rick Pitino, Rebound Rules (2008), pg. 169

On the afternoon of Aug. 13, 2009, in Room 402B of Louisville family court, Cardinals equipment manager Tim Sypher sat on the stand before Judge Hugh Smith Haynie and his ex-wife, Karen, explaining just how much he owed to Rick Pitino.

With custody of his and Karen's four-year-old daughter, Anabelle, hanging in the balance, Tim had been asked to specify his employment history. For 10 years, he said, he'd been a private investigator in his home state of Massachusetts (earning an average of $30,000-$35,000 annually). He -- like Vinny Tatum -- would then become a personal assistant to Pitino (making about $40,000 a year), completing quotidian administrative tasks like delivering messages while Pitino was president and coach of the Boston Celtics. In 2000, Pitino brought Tim to Louisville to be the basketball team's equipment manager, where he's remained ever since (currently making $77,000 plus bonuses).

Although Tim claimed at the hearing that he was broke (to quote his lawyer, "there are no assets to fight over in this case"), he also testified that he had recently obtained a 2008 Toyota Tundra from a Toyota of Nicholasville outlet -- one co-owned, as it happens, by a three-man team: Pitino, ex-NBA player Jamal Mashburn (who starred under Pitino at Kentucky), and Rick Avare, a Lexington, Ky., businessman who doubled as Pitino's business manager. Tim's legal team had also "volunteered," he said, to represent him in the proceedings at absolutely no cost.

To those who know the men, Sypher's reliance on Pitino goes deeper. One day, during the 1999-2000 NBA season, the Boston Herald ran a poll asking if Pitino should be fired as Celtics coach. Pitino's first reaction was to wonder, "Why would someone do that?" His second -- according to his own book, Lead to Succeed: 10 Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life -- was, "What would Tim Sypher ... do if I were fired?"

And the most significant thing Rick ever did for Tim, of course, was introduce him to Karen.

Just two weeks after that night at Porcini, Karen had called Pitino to inform him that she was pregnant. She hadn't had sex in the prior eight months, she said, and he had to be the father. The two agreed to meet at Tim Sypher's apartment, with Tim present. Pitino says that he then gave Karen the $3,000 she requested for "health insurance." For her part, Karen told SI that she neither requested nor received any money, and that at the meeting Pitino not only threatened her into having an abortion but proceeded to rape her again. (Pitino told police a second sexual encounter never occurred and that he was in Pebble Beach, Calif. on the date Sypher said they met; authorities declined to prosecute this second rape allegation. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich also told SI that Pitino told him he wasn't sure the child was his and had requested a paternity test -- a claim which Sypher denies.)

Shortly thereafter, on Aug. 29, 2003, it was Tim who would be the one to drive Karen across state lines to Cincinnati's Women's Services. The abortion was successfully completed, according to clinic records verified by SI. And it was during this precise time that she says she began to fall for Tim's advances.

While Karen now alleges that Pitino urged and paid Tim Sypher to marry her, a charge Pitino's attorney called a "complete fabrication", and that she was extremely vulnerable and "brainwashed" at the time, the virtually unfathomable upshot is nonetheless the same. The two became romantically involved, and fast. Tim popped the question on 04/04/04, she says -- at the site of her grandmother's grave -- and the two married just 12 days later in a tiny, private ceremony on the shores of Nantucket.

From then on, Karen became a visible presence, accompanying Tim to functions in Louisville where Pitino would also be in attendance (apparently without incident). Annabelle was born the year after the wedding.

******

"Don't neglect the motives of everyone you surround yourself with. Don't just worry about your players' motivation, but your assistants as well. Find out what makes them tick, and what makes them want to work hard."

-- Rick Pitino, Rebound Rules, pg. 169

The baptism certificate from St. Louis Bertrand Catholic Church reads clearly:

Name: Annabelle Denese SypherThe child of: Timothy R. Sypher and Karen CunaginWas born in: Louisville, Ky.Baptized on: April 26, 2005By the Reverend: Edward BradleyThe sponsors were: Kevin Willard and Julie Willard

Bluegrass basketball fans have long been familiar with Rev. Ed Bradley. Though his parish is Holy Name of Jesus Roman Catholic Church, out in Henderson, Ky., Bradley is Pitino's close friend and pastor and his basketball team's chaplain, often sitting at the end of the Cardinals bench. Pitino first brought Bradley to the University of Kentucky, and the priest became such a part of the team that former Wildcats center Nazr Mohammed -- who is not even Catholic -- would later ask Bradley to perform his wedding.

Kevin Willard and his wife, Julie, are similarly closely connected to Pitino. The head basketball coach at Iona College, Kevin is the son of Ralph Willard, the erstwhile Holy Cross head coach whom Pitino convinced to join Louisville as an associate head coach in June. Ralph replaced Pitino's son, Richard, who had left to become an assistant to Florida's Billy Donovan (who played under Pitino at Providence) on April 17 -- the day before Rick Pitino first announced he was the target of an extortion attempt. Ralph Willard is now being paid $350,000, the highest salary ever for a Louisville assistant.

Such is the intimacy of Pitino's basketball family. Shortly after arriving at Providence in 1985, where his coaching career truly took off in earnest, Pitino walked up to the blackboard in the Friars locker room and wrote four things: Basketball, School, Work Ethic and Family. He then subjected guard Harold Starks to what he believed to be a necessary test of knowledge: "How many brothers does [teammate] Steve Wright have? What does Billy Donovan's father do for a living?" Starks didn't know, and that day Pitino made each player get up and talk about his family to the entire team.

"Something wonderful happened," Pitino recalls, as described in another one of his books, Success is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life (1998). "What had been twelve individuals suddenly became a cohesive unit."

Which is all to say that whatever the "indiscretion six years ago" -- or, as Tom Jurich put it to SI, "One night he made a bad decision, and we've just got to deal with that" -- the woman at the center of that indiscretion, someone portrayed as obviously unstable, someone whose mental health prosecutors now question, someone who would allegedly demand $10 million to stay quiet, was more than merely around. Somehow, she wound up marrying one of Pitino's closest, handpicked subordinates while her family became intertwined with Pitino's closest friends. At the custody hearing in August, Tim and Karen acknowledged that Pitino had even been placing money into a college fund for Annabelle.

Karen had gone from a bad decision to a person living right up against the border of Pitino's inner circle, if not inside it altogether.

******

"You create your own luck. You create what happens to you, based on your decisions. You create your future, both by your actions and your nonactions."

-- Rick Pitino, Success is a Choice, pg. 220

Along the back hallway at Porcini, right by the bathrooms, a gallery of framed photos decorates the wall. No fewer than six photos currently feature Pitino, including one 8-by-10 shot of him smiling and toasting a glass of wine to the camera. Another set of pictures shows him celebrating a charity golf outing that benefited St. Joseph Children's Home.

Recently, a waiter at the restaurant said he wasn't allowed to comment on what had happened that night in August 2003, but he did say that business, if anything, has since been doing fine and might have even spiked as a result.

For the man in those pictures, however -- whose charity work also includes a foundation dedicated to his son, Daniel, who tragically died in 1987 at six months due to congenital heart failure -- it can never again be business as usual. "It's now a question of, Who is this person?" says Brian Barnes, an adjunct professor of philosophy at Louisville. "He represents a lot of pride in the city, a lot of very good feelings about the university locally. But people seem to be wondering, Who is this iconic figure now?"

Pitino was the wildly successful coach who built a cottage industry around the virtues of family and Catholicism, starting a career in motivational speaking first sparked by an obsession with Vince Lombardi (motto: "character as an attitude"). He was the author of five books, one of which dedicated a whole chapter to the life of St. Ignatius Loyola. He was the Catholic whose friend and priest participated in prayer vigils for the unborn. He was the husband who loved watching Law and Order with his wife of 33 years, Joanne.

None of it will look the same.

"If I'm [Louisville] president James Ramsey, what I want to know is if this was isolated," says the VeryRev. William L. Fichteman, pastor of Louisville's Cathedral of the Assumption. "Is it part of a lifestyle? I believe in forgiveness, in God's mercy, that we all sin. But when someone is called to be a model for young people, I want to know if this behavior is part of a pattern."

Naturally, rumors fly in Louisville. But Rick Pitino, behind a "1,000 percent vote of confidence" from the University of Louisville administration, will by all accounts keep his job. On Wednesday, as he urged us to "change the channel" and look elsewhere -- anywhere, really, from issues of the economy to the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy -- he noted that recruiting hadn't been hurt "one bit."

Perhaps no one put it better than Ramsey, the president, who in effect echoed Tim Sypher, and Vinny Tatum, and all the rest earlier this month: "He's our guy."

And what can be more important than that?

AP: Pitino angrily addresses media

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