As explained back in October, the University of Louisville’s decision to fire Rick Pitino “for just cause” set the table for the 65-year-old former New York Knicks and Boston Celtics head coach to sue the school for breach of contract. A “just cause” firing is one where the employee is believed to have engaged in such serious misconduct that the employer is relieved of any obligation to pay the remainder of the contract. For Pitino, the remaining money on his deal is worth approximately $4.3 million a year through 2026, or about $38.7 million total.
On Thursday, Pitino took his first step towards attempting to reclaim that money—and it is not a step without risk.
Pitino filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the University of Louisville Athletic Association in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. The complaint charges that Louisville lacked a valid “just cause” rationale to fire him.
It also contends that Louisville failed to adequately notify Pitino about his placement on administrative leave—a move that Pitino’s lawyers, Stephen Pence and Kurt Scharfenberger, say was tantamount to firing him.
Louisville’s reasoning for firing Pitino with cause
Louisville argues that Pitino’s alleged misconduct led to grave harm to the basketball program and to disparaging publicity for the school. In trying to justify its decision to fire Pitino with just cause, the school cites three main grounds.
First, the school stresses Pitino’s alleged involvement in, or knowledge of, potentially unlawful efforts to induce recruits to attend Louisville. Although government indictments do not charge or even name Pitino, Pitino is accused of facilitating payments to the family of top Louisville recruit (and now non-eligible freshman) Brian Bowen. These alleged payments were designed to induce the five-star recruit to attend Louisville. Pitino’s complaint acknowledges that he is probably “Coach 2” in the government’s Nov. 7 indictment of Adidas director of global marketing James Gatto, basketball organizer Merl Code and investment advisor Christian Dawkins. Coach 2 is implicated as an active participant in conduct that the U.S. Justice Departments portrays as illegal bribery.
Second, Louisville charges that Pitino violated his contract by failing to notify athletic department compliance officers of Dawkins’s presence on campus. Dawkins, an alleged briber and rogue agent, has been charged with multiple crimes in the college basketball hoops prosecutions. Convictions on those crimes could lead to decades in prison.
Lastly, Louisville stresses that Pitino failed to monitor and exercise sufficient oversight over his program in response to allegations that escorts were directed to have sex with recruits. In June, these allegations led the NCAA Committee on Infractions to suspend Pitino for five ACC games.
Pitino’s reasoning for why Louisville is wrong and in breach of the contract
Pitino’s complaint attempts to rebut each of Louisville’s justifications.
According to Pitino’s attorneys, Pitino “never has had any part —active, passive, or through willful ignorance —in any effort, successful or unsuccessful, completed or abandoned, to pay any recruit, or any family member of a recruit, or anyone else on a recruit’s behalf, as an inducement to attend the University of Louisville.” To advance that argument, Pitino’s complaint highlights that despite a government wiretap, the government does not cite any recorded statements of Pitino admitting to wrongdoing. Instead, the government refers to allegations by individuals who have been charged with crimes and thus persons whose veracity may be questioned.
Pitino’s complaint also rejects the school’s contention that he had a reporting obligation concerning Dawkins. Pitino’s justification: he didn’t know enough about Dawkins to trigger such an obligation. “Coach Pitino,” the complaint asserts, “never understood that Dawkins was an agent, and Bowen’s mother stated that Dawkins was not an agent in any regard for Bowen.”
Regarding the escort issue, Pitino not only insists that he lacked any awareness or involvement, but he highlights that Louisville is appealing the NCAA’s findings. As Pitino surmises, how can Louisville fire him for alleged misconduct while, in simultaneous communications with the NCAA, refute that such misconduct ever occurred?
Pitino’s complaint also links his rebuttals to the process through which Louisville fired him. Pitino notes that the school effectively fired him only two days after the original government complaint was unsealed. The school made such a decision without having conducted an independent investigation or having obtained new facts. For these reasons, Pitino believes, he was denied sufficient notice and process.
Pitino faces a difficult and risky task
Can Pitino win? The odds probably weigh against him. This is mainly because Pitino’s contract contains expansive and vague language for the university to construct a valid rationale for firing with just cause. For instance, he would have violated his contract by failing to: diligently supervise compliance of his assistant coaches; promote an atmosphere of compliance; or avoid disparaging media publicity. In order to conclude that Pitino did not violate his contract, one would likely have to believe that Pitino was unaware and uninvolved in any of the corruption that was both around him and that appeared to benefit him.
By suing in Kentucky, Pitino also accepts the possibility of a jury pool that may have serious reservations about him. While the jury selection process would assist Pitino’s attorneys in selecting seemingly fair jurors, Pitino is likely not a very popular person in “The Bluegrass State.”
In addition, by litigating against Louisville (as well as against Adidas), Pitino is gambling that his lawsuits do not cause damaging evidence and incriminating witness testimony to surface about him. Pitino is surely aware that while he has not been charged with a crime, he is in the orbit of persons who have been charged—which is never a good place to be, especially when the government could indict others in the weeks and months ahead. While Pitino may ultimately reach out-of-court settlements with Louisville and Adidas, sometimes the litigation process can go in unpredictable directions. For Pitino’s sake, he better hope no such developments place him in a worse place than he currently occupies.
At that same time, Pitino knows that he can inflict damage on Louisville and Adidas officials through litigation. The same dangers that he faces are those that school and company executives also face. Whether this dynamic is a good gamble for Pitino remains to be seen.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, and co-author with Ed O'Bannon of the forthcoming book Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA and My Life in Basketball.