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Rick Pitino's Legacy Will Reflect College Hoops at Its Best and Its Worst

It's fitting, in a way, that Rick Pitino was the first giant to fall in the FBI investigation that rocked college basketball.

On a winter’s night in 1991, I went on a recruiting trip with Rick Pitino. He was 39, in his second year as the coach at Kentucky; I was a reporter at Newsday. Pitino was well-known at that point in his career, but he was not yet a celebrity. There was, in fact, ample debate about how good Pitino was at his job. More to the point, Pitino was what we call in the newspaper business a local. Newsday was a Long Island paper that for a time had planted a flag in New York City (a damn good one, too, but I digress). Pitino had been born in New York, went to high school on Long Island and, most importantly, had spent two tumultuous years coaching the Knicks. He was one of ours.

Pitino had taken the Kentucky job in the spring of 1989, following a scandal that involved the familiar sentinels of illegal payments to players and academic fraud. (It’s tempting to make a snarky suggestion that those violations seem very minor in light of recent developments, but those were serious violations; the NCAA didn’t miss everything.)The Wildcats had been placed on three years’ probation and banned from the NCAA tournament for two years. Sports Illustrated ran a cover featuring a doughy white kid in a Kentucky jersey, head bowed, cradling a basketball on his hip. The headline, famously, was, KENTUCKY’S SHAME. Pitino would use that cover as motivation for his teams.

On this night, Pitino rode in a van with me, a team manager and his friend, longtime Kentucky equipment manager Bill Keightley. We watched a kid play at Somerset High, and afterward Pitino asked the rest of us if we thought he could play for the Wildcats. I remember waffling. Pitino said, “Not a chance.” (He knew what was coming.) On the way back to Lexington, we stopped at a pizza joint to eat. Our waitress, a middle-aged woman, saw Pitino in his blue, logoed windbreaker and timidly asked his name. She seemed genuinely unsure, or perhaps just fearful. (Insert Italian restaurant joke here.) “Rick Pitino,” he said. The woman covered her mouth in shock. Pitino smiled and signed an autograph. It was all very quaint. It really was. There was an innocence in the air.

Pitino had won 14 games in his first probation year at Kentucky and 22 in his second. In 1992, Year Three, he took Kentucky—including four senior players orphaned by probation, who came to be known as The Unforgettables—to the Elite Eight and missed the Final Four buy the length of Grant Hill’s pass and Christian Laettner’s shot. Dominance would soon follow. But it’s important to not forget what those early Pitino Kentucky teams were: Loveable underdogs (well, except for Jamal Mashburn), scrapping for respect. His 1987 Providence team, which made an unlikely Final Four run, led by Billy Donovan, was similarly scrappy, well-coached and motivated. As of the early 1990’s, this was Pitino’s reputation: Builder of underdog overachievers. This has long been college basketball’s foundational trope.

Hold that thought.

College basketball (football, too, but let’s keep our apocalyptic scandals sport-specific for now) has long demanded a measure of suspension of disbelief in order to participate. Think of the ecosystem: College and university basketball programs competing for the services of a finite number of talented teenagers who are needed to win games, provide March Madness television programming and, most significantly, justify the expense required to pay coaches millions of dollars, build giant arenas and provide bragging rights for wealthy alumni. Insert: AAU coaches, personal “advisors”, rapacious shoe-and-apparel companies, and come on, let’s be serious.

And there were always rumors and occasionally busts. But the scope and depth of any corruption remained below the surface, because it was all so much fun and we love our brackets. We also love the veneer of purity. Hoosiers and all that. Some people still think Olympic athletes are amateurs. (Usain Bolt would like to invite you to his yacht to explain otherwise over champagne and lobsters.) Some people think Barry Bonds hit all those home runs on flaxseed oil. We think of ourselves as cynical, but that’s not what we want. We want to be believers. And this has propelled college basketball for years, the notion that talented players choose colleges because they like the library or that a gifted coach and hardworking players can win a buzzer-beater in March. That it’s all clean. That’s the operative word: Clean.

It turns out it’s not all clean. On Tuesday the Justice Department announced bombshell (especially if you are a believer) allegations against assistant coaches from four schools and a further allegation that Adidas paid $100,000 to steer recruits to colleges, including one to a university that was not named, but later revealed to be Louisville, where Pitino has coached for the last 16 years. One day later, Pitino was put on administrative leave by the University, a move that Pitino’s lawyer said meant that Pitino had been “effectively fired.”

Pitino has not been charged with any crime (and all of the charges remain allegations, although multiple news organizations, CBS News first, are reporting that Pitino was directly involved with arranging payment to a recruit). But it is an ignominious turn in a Hall of Fame career. (It’s naïve to call it the “end” of Pitino’s career; he might choose to walk away wealthy and race thoroughbreds, but if he isn’t charged or jailed: Do not kid yourself. Barring a complete overhaul of the system, there will be a market for his services.) It’s also stunning that Pitino is gone, considering that he pulled off the remarkable feat of retaining his job through not just one, but two major scandals at Louisville, the first involving an extortion attempt that resulted from Pitino having sex with a woman who would later marry his team’s equipment manager, after hours in a Louisville Italian restaurant; and the second involving a Louisville assistant coach providing prostitutes for recruits.

Let’s say this: It’s possible that Rick Pitino has been cheating the system since he was the 25-year-old coach at Boston University in 1978. (I covered those teams a few times; if Pitino was cheating back then, he wasn’t very good at it.) It’s possible he was cheating at Providence and in those early days at Kentucky. It doesn’t look good for his tenure at Louisville. But the point is this: Pitino was, for a long time in his career, representative of the product that college basketball has long sold to the public—a mix of passion and purity, shaken well and televised almost every damn night from November until April. The kids. Whether that representation was genuine or a hoax doesn’t really matter. It was plausible. Pitino, in the foundation years of his career, and in a way that had legs, enabled belief.

His 1986–87 Providence team was a joy. The Friars were 11–20 in the last year before Pitino, 17–14 in his first year and 25–9 in his second. They took three-point shots in bunches before that tactic was common. They went to the Final Four with Indiana, Syracuse and UNLV and they were a blast of fresh air. In those early years at Kentucky, Pitino seemed to will victories out of players who had been emotionally damaged by the scandal. He was a whirl of sideline energy, so invested that the passion seemed to ooze out of his pores. (There’s a reason the sport is full of his coaching acolytes.) He had a tendency to get pedantic with journalists, especially in defeat, and that proclivity would worsen over time. He always took himself seriously, but that was a better look in 1992 than on Tuesday, when he called the newest allegations “shocking.”

He was at all times, exactly what television networks—and frankly all of us in the media—were dishing out: the bench maestro in a tailored suit, working officials, teaching, sweating just enough that you couldn’t see it. And winning. Winning a lot. Always taking himself seriously. He was never likeable, as it were, but he was, for a long time, believable. Pitino failed miserably in his second shot at the NBA, resigning 34 games into the 2000–01 season, 44 games below .500 in four seasons. He left not long after a memorable rant, explaining that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish were not “walking through that door,” and if they do, “they will be old and gray.” It was unseemly and weak.

Louisville scooped him up and he delivered for a program and athletic director (Tom Jurich, who went down with Pitino Wednesday) that was always racing toward wealth and status on a rocket: eight Elite Eights, four Final Fours and a national championship in 2013. At the end, he was making more than $7 million a year. The infidelity scandal would have taken down most coaches, but Pitino survived that, leaving behind only an image that’s hard to shake. The escort scandal should surely have finished him—and might still cost Louisville its 2013 national title—but it didn’t. He kept wearing the expensive suits, kept working the officials, yet it became a joyless enterprise, like a real estate deal. An old nickname, “Sick Rick”, seemed ever more fitting. Providence and The Unforgettables seemed like lifetimes ago.

On Tuesday, from behind a podium in Pitino’s own New York City, the reshaping of college basketball commenced. It’s foolish to think it will be transformed overnight, but it will be transformed. The NCAA has been pushed aside by the FBI. Stuff got real. There is a symmetry in Pitino being the first of giants to fall. His crime wasn’t just that he participated in the fantasy, but that he sold it so well.