Why Wasn't Iona More Concerned About Rick Pitino's Past When Hiring Him?

Was Iona concerned about Rick Pitino facing a suspension for up to half a season when hiring him back in March? It should have been.
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Monday must have come as a terrible shock to the good people at Iona College. Rick Pitino, charged with an NCAA violation?!? How could this be?!?

The school issued a statement saying it is “aware of” the Notice of Allegations that was delivered to Louisville, which included a Level Two violation charge against Pitino for failing “to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the men’s basketball program” while coaching the Cardinals. Congrats to Iona on its awareness. (This is the new way university P.R. departments have chosen to say nothing when responding to bad news, by stating that they are aware of said bad news.)

That seems to be where Iona’s awareness ended, however.

Rick Pitino Louisville Iona college basketball FBI scandal

The school hired Pitino in early March and stated at the time that it had done “really thorough” work vetting the Hall of Famer’s NCAA problems. Those problems were enough to get him fired at Louisville in 2017, when one scandal quickly became two, an alleged six-figure Adidas deal to buy a player following strippers and hookers being paid by a staffer to entertain recruits. The fact that the second scandal blew up very shortly after the program was hammered for the first one created a critical mass. Pitino had to go.

When asked by ESPN.com at the time of his hiring whether Iona had concerns about an NCAA show-cause penalty for Pitino, athletic director Matt Glovaski responded: “We have no reason to believe that would happen.” Glovaski is right about that—Pitino is not facing a show-cause situation, per the Notice of Allegations—but his answer was limited by the question.

The better question: Was Iona concerned about Pitino facing a suspension for up to half a season? It should have been.

The school said Monday that it did “extensive due diligence” on Pitino before hiring him. By due diligence, that apparently means Iona officials talked to Pitino and his lawyer and his golfing buddies at nearby Winged Foot Country Club, who said they have never met a more upstanding NCAA rules follower in all their lives. Boxes checked, they went on with the hire.

If the Iona brass talked to someone at Louisville about Pitino, nobody knows who.

If the Iona brass talked to someone in NCAA Enforcement about Pitino, nobody knows who.

But, sure. Extensive.

Somebody trot out poor Glovaski (who probably had as much say in the Pitino hire as he does the chemistry curriculum) again so he can provide a little more detail on the “due diligence.”

Pitino issued his own statement Monday, saying in part: “I firmly disagree with this allegation and will follow through the protocols in addressing this allegation through the administrative process.” He disagreed the last time the NCAA charged him, too. Didn’t work out very well for him.

Louisville Coach Chris Mack Releases Statement on NCAA Notice

Frankly, the surprise from the NCAA in this NOA was that Pitino was only charged with a Level Two violation and not a Level One, which is the most severe at the Enforcement staff’s disposal. The program was hit with a Level One for Adidas’ $100,000 offer for recruit Brian Bowen to go to Louisville and its arranged $25,000 payment, plus thousands of dollars in alleged payments by assistants Jordan Fair and Kenny Johnson to an AAU coach and Bowen’s father. But Pitino faces a lesser charge than his former assistants. (Johnson, who has been mystifyingly employed at La Salle the past two seasons, could get a show-cause out of this.)

“Traditionally, if there is a Level One allegation, the head-coach responsibility allegation is of a corresponding level,” said Stu Brown, an Atlanta-based attorney who specializes in NCAA compliance cases. “It’s interesting that (the Pitino allegation) is alleged as Level Two.”

So in that respect, Pitino potentially got off light. But he still could face major sanctions.

The charge against Pitino comes with a pair of what the NCAA terms “aggravating circumstances,” which can enhance potential penalties. The aggravating circumstances: Pitino already violated head coach responsibility rules in the previous scandal, when he failed to monitor the activities of stripper/hooker coordinator Andre McGee; and at the very time Pitino was failing to detect anything odd about a five-star recruit (Bowen) landing in his lap out of nowhere in June, he “was awaiting a decision from the Committee on Infractions and subsequently subject to show-cause order as a result of the decision.”

That penalty included what was supposed to be a five-game suspension for the 2017–18 season, but Pitino was fired before he had to serve that. (“Only five games,” Pitino told ESPN.com in March, as if that was a merit badge or something.) If the finding is that Pitino again violated the rules, and the aggravating circumstances push the punishment to the high end of the NCAA’s penalty structure, he could get a suspension for 30–50% of Iona’s regular-season schedule.

Given the fact that it’s the second time through the NCAA justice sausage factory in three years, Pitino had better mount a good defense. Because potential repeat violator status won’t play in his favor.

“The Infractions Committee has discretion on those (penalty) ranges,” Brown said. “That’s an easy thing for the committee to justify on the higher end of the penalty range. Generally, people would nod their heads and say, at least at the 10,000-foot level, that makes sense.”

Now, is it likely that Pitino coaches his entire first year at Iona without penalty? The labyrinthine, back-and-forth NCAA infractions process makes that almost a sure thing. Even in a non-pandemic world, this case isn’t likely to be resolved before March 2021, and appeals could drag it out months longer.

If you’re Iona, a mid-major program coming off a 12–17 season, you’re probably fine with the cost-benefit analysis here. You get a Hall of Fame coach who excels at every aspect of the sport. You weather the initial blowback after hiring a guy who arrives up to his eyebrows in recent scandal. You let him go to work, and you likely don’t have any tangible penalties until the 2021–22 season—if at all.

Would you take a half-season suspension and recruiting restrictions in exchange for, say, four years of Rick Pitino? Yeah, you probably would.

But poor Iona didn’t know it had to make any kind of squishy deal to get Pitino. The school had no idea there would be any NCAA trouble following the fired coach of the Cardinals from Louisville to New Rochelle. Who could have seen that coming?

Besides everyone, I mean.