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Rick Pitino's Luck Ran Out at the End of His Turbulent Louisville Tenure

Louisville appears to have finally put an end to the most turbulent period of Pitino's lengthy career, marked by fortuitous ignorance on the part of a Hall of Fame coach and tolerance among his superiors.

Rick Pitino is out as Louisville’s basketball coach today, and to understand why let’s first revisit a recent story about Rick Pitino being very happy. There are not going to be a lot of happy Rick Pitino stories right now because of the truth about this one. He told it in June to Louisville’s News Radio 840, when he was relaying how five-star prospect Brian Bowen had recently decided to commit to the Cardinals.

“We got lucky on this one,” Pitino said. “I had an AAU director call me and ask me if I’d be interested in a 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.”

Bowen’s commitment was a surprise; other schools, such as Michigan State and Arizona, were reported to be the frontrunners in his recruitment. And then on Tuesday morning, the U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York provided a more detailed version of Pitino’s tale of great fortune, which is why the coach is now out of a job—four years after winning a national title and being inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame—along with Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich. According to WAVE reporter Kent Taylor, Jurich was asked to fire Pitino, he refused, and both were let go. They have reportedly been placed on administrative leave, but Pitino’s attorney, Steve Pence, told The Courier-Journal that his client was, “effectively fired.”

In the case against Adidas executive James Gatto, the government outlined how Pitino doth protest too much. The criminal complaint described how “a public research university located in Kentucky” facilitated a shoe company’s payment of $100,000 to “an All-American high school basketball player” who committed to play there the same day Bowen committed to Louisville. The media and public connected the dots faster than most college teams run their offensive sets.

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Pitino’s response was to once again suggest that his immense success has been the result of running one of the nation’s premier hoops programs while simultaneously being oblivious to how his staff procures its players. Through his lawyer, Pitino released a statement describing how the federal government’s accusations were “a complete shock” and the result of “a few bad actors.” It echoed his reaction to a recruiting scandal that broke two years ago, when Andre McGee, who was on Pitino’s staff from 2010 to ’14, was alleged to have paid prostitutes to engage in sex acts with underage recruits during their visits to Louisville’s campus and basketball dorm. “Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know,” Pitino told ESPN at the time. He implored McGee to come forward and tell the truth.

The NCAA announced its truth this past June, when it suspended Pitino for five conference games during the 2017–18 season and vacated a number of victories, including that 2013 national championship—a first even in the long history of retroactive NCAA sanctions. Louisville appealed the ruling (arguing, among other things, that punishment should be lessened because the cost of the prostitutes’ services was low), and a decision is expected to come this season, during which the Cardinals are likely to be a top-10 team. Pitino had remained defiant as ever, saying he had “lost faith in the NCAA.”

Pitino’s school had stuck by him through that scandal, but with this federal investigation it too has apparently lost faith, or at least could no longer withstand the image damage as a cost of winning. With Jurich helming its athletic department, the school had shown an almost comical tolerance for such things: Before Pitino’s program’s escort episode, Louisville had re-hired former football coach Bobby Petrino in 2014, two years after Arkansas fired him for misleading the school about a motorcycle crash that involved a staffer with whom he was having an undisclosed affair. No interim replacement has been named for Pitino, and given that his staff is now implicated in two major recruiting scandals, a replacement is not likely to come from within. Just 47 days remain before the Cardinals’ first game of the season.

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Thus ends perhaps the most turbulent period of Pitino’s lengthy career. How he will ultimately be remembered is unclear. Rarely does a coach already so accomplished—a Final Four as a wunderkind at Providence in 1987, a national title at Kentucky in ’96, plus high-profile stints coaching the NBA’s Knicks and Celtics—arrive at a program so established and bring it such a dizzying combination of success and embarrassment. He had won enough at Louisville and elsewhere (and adequately avoided direct implication) to survive the prostitution scandal, and weathered a bizarre ’09 saga in which he was the target of an extortion scheme, during which Pitino admitted to having sex with his equipment manager’s wife and paying for her abortion. That episode came four years after he had led the Cardinals to their first Final Four in 19 years and three years before he would lead them to a second in ’12, a prelude to their title the next year.

And now, after 16 seasons, three Final Fours, and a national championship, Pitino’s time in Louisville is over. This process could be protracted; his attorney, Steve Pence, had promised that the school would not fire Pitino “without a bare-knuckle fight.” Pitino has sworn that he did not know about any of this—the sort of transactional recruiting that those in and around college basketball, as Pitino has been for four decades, regarded as an open secret—was going on within his program. But now, regardless of what Pitino did or did not know, it is no longer his program. The truth of the matter is Pitino was not so lucky after all.