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Rick Pitino, Always a Salesman, Now a Product Nobody Should Want

Rick Pitino was playing loose with the rules four decades ago, but his charisma, salesmanship and coaching ability kept him on the sidelines. Until now.

Rick Pitino committed eight NCAA violations, then misled the NCAA, and it was bad enough and ugly enough that the NCAA recommended the school disassociate itself from him.

This was in 1977. Pitino was an assistant at Hawaii.

If you’re surprised today … well, where have you been for the last 40 years?

Of all the college basketball coaches in the land, Rick Pitino was the college-basketball-iest. Coaching major college hoops is a salesman’s job, and Pitino directed a 40-year infomercial for himself. This week, for the first time ever, he couldn’t find anybody to buy what he is selling.

It’s almost certainly over for Pitino now. He is 65 and leaving in disgrace from Louisville, a place with an astoundingly high disgrace tolerance. When the NCAA dusts off its rulebook and hammers the Cardinals again, it will surely hit Pitino with a show-cause penalty, keeping him off the court for a few more years. Even in the swamp of college sports, it’s hard to envision Pitino cleaning himself up enough to get another big-time job. He has gone from the coach everybody wanted to hire to the guy nobody will touch.

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This should be a time for sober reflection and honest self-assessment, but Pitino will only go down that road if there is a book deal in it. He has been selling so long and so well that he knows no other way. He got caught cheating on his wife and angrily proclaimed that recruiting was still going great. His program hired hookers to lure high school students and Pitino sold himself as the victim. Louisville apparently paid six figures for a recruit and he released a statement saying it was “initiated by a few bad actors … our fans and supporters deserve better and I am committed to taking whatever steps are needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable.”

This is who Pitino is, and how he has always operated. Pitino understood, long before anybody else realized it, that coaching college basketball is not about college and it is only sort of about basketball. It’s a marketing game. Almost every coach has a hustle, an angle, a pitch for players and fans and especially the media.  Some coaches see their hustle as a necessary evil. Pitino saw it as his calling.

It worked spectacularly, for two reasons. One is that Pitino is a fantastic basketball coach. He was one of the best defensive coaches in the history of the sport. When you hear all this talk in the NBA about pace and emphasizing three-pointers, remember: Pitino was pushing that in the ’80s.

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The other reason is that Pitino was a natural, relentless salesman. He never stepped out of character. For all of Pitino’s lies and violations, there is something irresistible about the guy: the glint in the eye, the smile as he told a story. He was a writer’s dream but a fact-checker’s nightmare.

It all sounded so good when he said it. Coaching the Knicks was a “lifelong dream” but Kentucky was his “Camelot.” He turned down the Nets because he was “infatuated” with his players at Kentucky, then left for the Boston Celtics because that was “another Camelot.” He helped John Calipari get the UMass job. Well, maybe he didn’t. Perhaps he did. He doesn’t remember. He works harder than anybody else, wants to win more than anybody. He is humbler now than he was then. Have you read his latest book?

On it went, a career full of spin. This, I suspect, is why he won’t land in the NBA. It’s not because of NCAA violations; NBA teams don’t really care about that. And it’s not because Pitino is a bad pro coach. He was a bad general manager, but he was a good NBA coach. He can do that job.

The problem is that NBA general managers don’t want a guy who is always angling, because pretty soon he will be angling for their office.

There is probably a good person in there somewhere, underneath the expensive suits and press-conference façade. Even now, you want to believe he will express remorse and admit he did something wrong.

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But this brings us back to where it began, to Hawaii, to the first stain. Those violations came up again more than a decade later, when Kentucky asked Pitino to rescue the Wildcats from deep NCAA trouble. The Lexington Herald-Leader pointed out that he had been in trouble before. Pitino responded by going full Pitino.

“There's no one in this business with more integrity than Rick Pitino,” Pitino told The New York Times back then. “I'm going to make my mistakes as a coach—every coach is going to make mistakes. But one thing you won't have to worry about is cheating with Rick Pitino.

“I think it's a positive because I know exactly what can go on, the wrong way.”