After Louisville's Latest Scandal, Is It Time to Put Men's Basketball Program in NCAA-Induced Coma?

How many embarrassments are too many for the Louisville men's basketball program?
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A tradition like no other: Louisville basketball and extortion plots.

Seriously, this is the extent of the outlandish weirdness that the men’s program wears like a retch-inducing cheap cologne: for the second time in a dozen years, the Cardinals say they are the victims of a bizarre blackmail scheme requiring federal intervention. There was Rick Pitino’s extortion at the hands of a woman he had sex with in a restaurant, which put Karen Sypher behind bars for years; and there is the current case that blew up Tuesday when former assistant coach Dino Gaudio was federally charged for allegedly threatening in March to turn over NCAA violations to the media if his demands for money weren’t met.

What in the actual hell?

But wait, there also is the slalom through scandal between the bookend extortions: the strippers in the dorm that were arranged and paid for by a Louisville staffer, which led to major NCAA sanctions; and the Brian Bowen payola scam that was part of the Southern District of New York’s exposure of corruption in college basketball, which is still winding its way through the NCAA crime-and-punishment process.

Now blackmail. Again! This time from the inside! “This isn’t an outside party, like the last one,” as one impressed/aghast college basketball source put it. “This is brother-on-brother crime.”

This is, according to the charging document, what went down on March 17, three days after Louisville was left out of the men's NCAA tournament: In an “in-person meeting with Louisville personnel,” Gaudio threatened to report violations pertaining to production of recruiting videos for athletes and the use of graduate assistants in practices. Later that day, per the document, Gaudio also sent via text one of the recruiting videos to “Louisville personnel,” with the text having “traveled” outside the state of Kentucky.

Gaudio, per the feds, was seeking 17 months of salary, or the lump-sum equivalent. The exchanges occurred after Gaudio was informed by head coach Chris Mack—who Gaudio has known for about 30 years—that his contract wasn’t being renewed. He has been charged with Interstate Communication with Intent to Extort, a felony which carries a penalty of no more than two years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“The University and I were the victims of Coach Gaudio’s conduct and I will continue to fully cooperate with authorities in their investigations,” Mack said in a statement.

Brian Butler, attorney for Gaudio, told Sports Illustrated that Gaudio was blindsided by his termination and that the conversation with Mack “became heated. Coach Gaudio was hurt, he was angry, he felt he was being dealt with unfairly, and he made comments he regrets. And he wasn’t given the chance to walk those back.”

And the comments are on tape, according to Butler, without Gaudio’s knowledge.

“Coach Gaudio intends to take full responsibility for his mistake,” Butler said. “He hopes that all the good he has done in 40 years in the coaching profession will put that mistake in context of a moment of hurt and anger. We expect this to be resolved expeditiously."

So here we are, with the latest tumult in a program that has cornered the market on crazy. You can search high and low for one college basketball team ensnared in an extortion fiasco. This one has two on the books. In this area alone, the Cardinals have returned to No. 1 status for the first time since 2013, when it won a national title … which was subsequently vacated.

I mean, Bobby Petrino’s two tenures as football coach were boring compared to the string of crackpot happenings in hoops.

Much as Pitino learned in 2009, being the victim of extortion doesn’t alleviate the spotlight on what led to being extorted. And if Louisville committed a third set of NCAA violations within the past few years, as Gaudio alleged, they might as well turn the Yum Center into America’s biggest flea market and shut the program down for a few years.

If Gaudio’s allegations are substantiated—and the school did nothing to refute them in its statement Tuesday—Louisville’s NCAA caseload may be reaching critical mass. How this is handled by NCAA Enforcement (or its alternate body, the Independent Accountability Review Process, which has been dealing with the Bowen case) will be very important.

According to sources familiar with NCAA charging guidelines, these are likely to be considered Level II or III violations, perhaps tilting more toward Level III. A Level II violation—a “significant breach of conduct”—could be trouble for the Cardinals, given all the other baggage. Level III is considered more inadvertent violations or infractions that produce “minimal advantages.”

The use of graduate assistants in practice was deemed a Level II violation in a recent ruling in an NCAA case involving UTEP football. But as anyone who has operated in the NCAA infractions space knows, these are not one-size-fits-all cases. If there is video of Mack running practices with the GAs involved in an impermissible way—especially if it’s a regular occurrence—that would seem to heighten the risk for Louisville.

So would cumulative effect. When the infractions pile up higher than the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs, that’s a problem.

According to NCAA bylaws, one of the “aggravating circumstances” that can ratchet up penalties, is history of violations. And, boy howdy, does Louisville have some recent history. As one lawyer with knowledge of the process put it, the question in a potential hearing setting could well be, “Why is your school here again?”

Which brings us to an existential question that could be germane to both an infractions committee and everyone else with a stake in college athletics: Does the world really need Louisville men’s basketball?

Would it be the worst thing if it went into an NCAA-induced coma and then reawakened in, say, 2024? Would the so-called NCAA Death Penalty be too strict for a program that has become Repeat Violatorville? How many embarrassments are too many? How much is a chronic source of controversy worth? What is the tolerance level for bad headlines?

The Atlantic Coast Conference, which was rather elastic in stretching its academic rep to bring in Louisville in 2014, might be asking those questions. So might the school’s own administration, which has worked hard to upgrade its academic profile.

When your last two full-time head men’s basketball coaches have both been blackmailed, things are not good. And when there were two major scandals in between those extortions, things are worse. Aside from providing prurient interest for a public that is perpetually amused by the underbelly of college basketball, Louisville isn’t contributing much to the sport.

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