How does Rick Pitino survive? What does it say about the University of Louisville? What does it say about big-time college sports?
There's a horrible federal extortion trial going on in Louisville involving Pitino and Karen Cunagin Sypher. Both admit they had sex in a restaurant, after hours, in 2003. Just about everything else is in dispute.
The sad, sordid tale makes everyone look bad.
Sypher became pregnant after the encounter with Pitino and had an abortion. Pitino's paternity was never proven. He has acknowledged giving her $3,000, but says he believed the money would be used for medical insurance. Pitino's long-time aide, Tim Sypher, married Karen Cunagin about a year after the encounter with Pitino, but has since divorced Cunagin Sypher. Pitino said in 2009 he got threatening calls from someone representing Cunagin Sypher, demanding cars, cash and housing in exchange for her silence. That's when he went to the authorities. After Cunagin Sypher was indicted for extortion, she filed a complaint claiming she was raped by Pitino, but authorities said the claim had no merit and no charges were filed.
Pitino issued a public apology last year after going to the feds. At that time, Louisville president James Ramsey backed Pitino, reminding folks that the coach is "our guy" and suggesting everyone move forward. A year later, we have the trial, and the dirty details. On the stand for six hours last week, Pitino explained that he delayed telling the truth because he didn't want his family to know about the tryst. Leaving himself open to ridicule on top of scorn, he said the encounter lasted only 15 seconds. He made himself a punchline.
Pitino wins games. He's the most famous person in Louisville. He's taken the Cardinals to the Final Four and Louisville is getting ready to move into a new arena. College basketball is a very big deal in Kentucky.
And so Pitino survives.
This amazes me. Pitino holds a high position at a major public institution of learning. He makes millions of dollars and controls the lives of talented teenage ballplayers. He succeeds by going to the homes of high school ballplayers and telling parents that their sons will be in good hands in his basketball program.
And Louisville does nothing in the wake of these admissions?
A lot of college coaches have been dismissed for less. Everyone makes mistakes and private life is private life, but Pitino's position at a public university usually requires exemplary conduct.
I like Rick Pitino. He played basketball at the University of Massachusetts and was on the freshman team when Julius Erving put UMass on the basketball map in the early 1970s. His first head coaching job was in Boston, where I work, at Boston University. BU never attracted many fans and I remember getting a letter from Rick asking for a little ink in The Boston Globe for his upstart program. He went from BU to Providence where he led the Friars back into the Final Four. After a two-year stint as coach of the Knicks, he took over at Kentucky and won an NCAA championship in 1996 with a roster chock full of NBA players. He parlayed the Kentucky gig into a whopping contract with the Celtics in 1997.
Pitino's Celtic stint was dismal. He got off to a bad start when he made himself "team president" bumping Red Auerbach from his rightful spot atop the masthead of Boston's legendary franchise. In three and a half seasons with the Green, Pitino was 102-146. While he was in Boston he branded sports talk radio as "the fellowship of the miserable" and delivered a legendary postgame speech in which he said, "the negativity in this town sucks.''
Soon after that he was gone. And he never came back to explain the failed regime.
Pitino has known real tragedy in his life. He and his wife, Joanne, have five living children and lost an infant son to congenital heart failure in 1987. His brother-in-law and best friend was killed in the 9/11 attacks.
He is wealthy and famous. He's a snappy dresser and resembles Al Pacino playing Michael Corleone in the Godfather movies. Go to Amazon and you can order Pitino books entitled, Success is a Choice, Lead to Succeed and Rebound Rules: The Art of Success. He's always presented himself as a devout Catholic and it's not unusual to see him on the bench in the company of a priest.
Where does he go from here? When this trial is over, Pitino will still be free, wealthy and famous, but how does he go back to the bench, back into Lexington, back into the living rooms of those moms and dads who want their sons to succeed in school and sports?