Why Would Iona Hire Rick Pitino?

Rick Pitino is a coaching genius. He is also a rules compliance disaster. Now, he's returning to college basketball, and Iona will own every criticism out there for its craven, just-win hire.
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Rick Pitino coaching at Iona is like Pavarotti singing at a county fair in Iowa. He is dramatically overqualified. If you can hire a coaching master at a mid-major, low-budget school, why on earth wouldn’t you?

Well, here’s why on earth you might not do it:

There is an NCAA notice of allegations circling the University of Louisville, waiting to land, sometime in the coming weeks according to school sources. The coronavirus outbreak that has shut down universities and basically crippled the entire country could obviously delay things—no school president should have to deal with that when they’re trying to decide when it is safe to reopen a campus.

But that NOA is out there, preparing to drop like an anvil. It would be a huge shock if the allegations aren’t the most serious the NCAA can muster—specifically regarding Pitino—and it would be the second set of major allegations against him in the past three years. If this set sticks, Iona could expect its savior to be slammed by the NCAA in late 2020 or early ’21.

He is a coaching genius. He is also a rules compliance disaster. Caveat emptor.

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Surely — surely! — Iona did the necessary due diligence of checking with NCAA enforcement on the Pitino dossier, which now is roughly the size of “Gone With The Wind.”

Surely — surely! — Iona put in the calls to find out what could be coming down the pike at Louisville, in addition to the tainted water that already flowed over the dam in 2017.

Surely — surely! — Iona is well backgrounded on what charges could be coming.

Because wouldn’t it be about the dumbest thing in college athletics history to hire a coach in March and then have him subjected to a whopper show-cause penalty and potential lengthy suspension less than a year from now? Wouldn’t that be fireable stupidity on the part of the school administration? Surely no university president could be that idiotic.

So let’s assume that Iona did its due diligence and has just decided, screw it, we’ll take everything that comes with Rick Pitino. We will take the coaching genius and the likely suspension and a show-cause order that could limit his recruiting for, who knows, five years? We will take every criticism out there for a craven, just-win hire.

Perhaps most glaring of all don’t-give-a-damn gestures decisions by the school located in New Rochelle, N.Y., is this: We will take every rip job for doing this now, in the middle of a pandemic that has actually led to the city being declared a coronavirus “containment zone.” The National Guard has been called in.

New Rochelle is now considered one of the most toxic places in America today. Which maybe makes it the perfect landing spot for Rick Pitino.

Does this seem like an ideal time to hire a basketball coach? Especially that basketball coach?

Can’t wait for the press conference, especially if it happens via Skype from Pitino’s home in Miami since New Rochelle is under lockdown. Can’t wait for the Iona president, Seamus Carey, to spin this puppy.

Here is what Pitino brings back to college basketball, in addition to 647 career victories:

• The first and only vacated men’s basketball national championship dating to the last NCAA scandal, handed down in 2017, after assistant coach Andre McGee was found to have paid a collection of escorts and strippers to entertain Louisville players and recruits in the basketball dorm on campus.

• A voluntary postseason ban from the 2016 postseason, which was intended to ward off a vacating of said national title. Didn’t work.

• A five-game personal suspension from Atlantic Coast Conference games in the 2017-18 season. Pitino never got around to serving that suspension because he was fired before that season started for the next NCAA scandal, so it likely would not carry over. But it is part of his penalty record.

• And now the new stuff: a near-certain charge for failure to monitor to his staff and promote an atmosphere of compliance for what happened later in 2017, after the first sanctions were handed down. That was part of the FBI probe, which implicated Louisville in an Adidas scheme that would pay $100,000 to the family of recruit Brian Bowen for him to attend Louisville. Assistant coach Jordan Fair also was on videotape discussing another six-figure deal later in 2017 for a different recruit. And Bowen’s father, Brian Sr., testified in federal court that he met Louisville assistant coach Kenny Johnson and accepted money from him after moving into a luxury hotel in the city.

That will be the subject of the incoming NOA. The charges against the school are expected to be severe.

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The argument from Louisville against massive NCAA sanctions will be that it has swept out every single person in a leadership position in 2017. That very prominently includes Pitino, who now brings the stink of that scandal with him to a college that apparently has a faulty smell mechanism.

The show-cause penalty was introduced by the NCAA to make sure coaches couldn’t job-hop away from sanctions. Now we will see how forcefully it can be applied to a guy who was fired in 2017, then coached overseas while waiting for his name to detoxify just long enough to be hireable.

Jerome Allen, the former head coach at Pennsylvania, was just handed a 15-year show-cause for accepting bribes in return for recruiting the son of a nursing-home mogul with a criminal record. That ties the longest show-cause on record. Allen was implicated personally in wrongdoing there.

Pitino has not been personally tied to the strippers or the pay-for-play schemes. But he’s had not one, not two, but three former assistants implicated in major violations—and the latter two of them were implicated within weeks after the first scandal. That’s Repeat Violator City, and that’s a major problem for everyone involved—including their boss, who is responsible for monitoring his staff.

It was probably just a matter of time before someone swallowed their decency and hired Rick Pitino, genius coach. But this timing stinks for so many reasons—for what’s happening in New Rochelle, and for what’s about to land at Louisville with Pitino’s name on it.

Pavarotti doesn’t play a county fair unless he has to. This is a marriage of desperation in the middle of dark times.