Surviving A Scandal

A towering figure in hoops-crazed Kentucky, Louisville coach Rick Pitino has weathered sordid revelations of an affair with a woman accused of trying to extort him. The Cardinals, after all, need him
August 23, 2009

Modern royaltyflourishes in the commonwealth of Kentucky, and no one is more likely to havethis status conferred upon him than someone who owns great thoroughbredracehorses or coaches college basketball at Kentucky or Louisville. Each fieldis a secular religion of its own, and by this standard Rick Pitino has been notjust a prince but one of the most powerful Kentuckians of the last halfcentury. ¬∂ A transplanted Yankee with an attitude (and accent) to match, Pitinorescued the University of Kentucky from the embarrassment of NCAA sanctions towin the 1996 national championship, and nine years later he led long-dormantLouisville to its first Final Four in nearly two decades. Horses in hisownership have twice run in the Kentucky Derby, the most prestigious race inthe world. He has built his image—and has written four books—on the values offamily, leadership and devout Catholicism. His name is iconic.

Or at least it wasuntil last week, when further details about Pitino's part in a very messyaffair became public. There had been a strong scent of scandal since May 12,when Karen Sypher, a 49-year-old former model and auto-glass saleswoman, wasindicted on federal charges of trying to extort cash and services totaling $10million from Pitino, 56. (Sypher pleaded not guilty at her arraignment.) Lastweek the odor intensified when the Louisville Courier-Journal obtained copiesof police interviews conducted in July in which Pitino admitted to having hadwhat he called consensual sex with Sypher after hours at a Louisvillerestaurant in August 2003 and then alleged that he later gave her $3,000 afterSypher said that she was pregnant by Pitino, was planning to have an abortionand needed money to pay for health insurance.

The resultingdrama left Pitino sullied, Sypher facing prison and the university on the hornsof a high-stakes dilemma. A $252 million, 22,000-seat arena is rising on thedowntown skyline along the Ohio River, the future home of the Cardinals(beginning in the fall of 2010) that Pitino is expected to fill; and 80 milesto the east, at Kentucky, there is swift reconstruction being done by therelentless John Calipari, who was hired as coach in March to hang nationalchampionship banners in Rupp Arena and steamroll Louisville in the process.

The universitythrew its support behind Pitino in the days after the scandal broke. Instatements Louisville president James Ramsey said, "We're all ready to moveon," and athletic director Tom Jurich said he is behind Pitino "amillion percent." (Ramsey said that Pitino had told university officials"several months ago" about the alleged extortion attempt.)

Even after therevelations last week, the school stood firm. In an interview last Saturday,Jurich said, "Right now, there is a stain, no question about it. One nighthe made a bad decision, and we've just got to deal with that. He's done wondersby his players; he's done wonders by the school. I think the body of his workis eventually going to outweigh everything else."

It will have tooutweigh the emotional and divisive issue of abortion, complicated by Pitino'sstaunch and public Catholicism. At Louisville he coaches with a Catholicpriest, his longtime friend Ed Bradley, sitting at the end of the bench. TheVery Reverend William Fichteman, pastor of the Cathedral of the Assumption, themother church of the Louisville archdiocese, said last Saturday before 5:30p.m. Mass, "It's an embarrassment if indeed [Pitino], in any way, supportsabortion. Anytime abortion is involved, it raises very serious questions forRoman Catholics."

But clearlyCardinals fans do not want to lose Pitino in the face of the state's impendingbasketball civil war, and there was little reaction apart from a call forPitino's dismissal from Cardinals for Life, a campus antiabortion group. Manybusiness leaders and politicians are connected to the Louisville basketballprogram, as financial or fanatical supporters, but none went on record callingfor action against Pitino—perhaps because details about the abortion, like muchof the Pitino-Sypher drama, are less than clear.

What is not indispute is that Pitino and Sypher had sex on the night of Aug. 1, 2003, atPorcini, a Louisville Italian restaurant favored by Pitino and his entourage.Pitino, married for 33 years and the father of five children, and Sypher, adivorced mother of four at the time, have confirmed this. Beyond that, there isconsiderable disagreement.

When Pitino wasinterviewed by Louisville police in July, according to his lawyer, Steve Pence,who was present for the session, "Coach [Pitino] told the police that Ms.Sypher talked about having an abortion [and] said she had no insurance. Coachasked how much insurance cost. And she said, according to coach, $3,000. SoCoach paid $3,000 for insurance."

Sypher, however,told SI, "I never saw any money from Rick and didn't ask for any money. Henever offered to pay for anything. I had my own health insurance at thetime." Sypher has also made two other claims: She says that Pitino rapedher twice in August 2003, including the night when she became pregnant.Louisville prosecutors declined to press charges, citing insufficient evidenceand the fact that Sypher did not come forward at the time. She also told SIthat Pitino forced her to get an abortion. "Absolutely ridiculous,"says Pence. Additionally, Sypher produced the recording of a voice mail thatPitino left on her phone before the abortion, in which Pitino seems to leavethe decision in Sypher's hands, albeit while making it clear that her pregnancyhas left him uncomfortable. ("I'm a high-profile person.... This is a veryunfortunate situation," Pitino says on the tape.)

On Aug. 29, 2003,Sypher had an abortion at Cincinnati Women's Services. Her name at the time wasKaren Wise. Documents show that she identified herself as Catholic and signedan informed consent form.

Pitino, whodeclined to be interviewed by SI, told Jurich he is not convinced that hecaused the pregnancy that led to the abortion. "Rick told me he doesn'tknow if it was his kid," says Jurich. "He told me he asked for a blood[paternity] test, but she wouldn't do it."

Sypher says,"No, there was no paternity test. He didn't ask for one. He just wanted meto get [the abortion] done. It could only have been his [baby]. I didn't havesex for eight months before that."

Eight months afterthe abortion, in April 2004, she married Tim Sypher, who was—andremains—Louisville's strength coach. Karen, who met Tim through Pitino, hasalleged to SI that she believes Pitino urged Tim to marry her. (Tim initiallywas hired to work for Pitino with the Boston Celtics in 1997 and owes hiscareer to Pitino.) The Syphers, who have a four-year-old daughter, aredivorcing.

Pitino has notspoken publicly since a press conference at Louisville on Aug. 12, when hisstrongest words were "I'm sorry for that indiscretion six years ago."He did not mention abortion, and he did not mention Sypher by name.

The universityseems confident because of two factors: First, the fact that Sypher, notPitino, is under federal indictment. Second, that it has not been proved thatPitino was responsible for the pregnancy that was aborted.

Pitino also haslong been insulated by a cadre of loyal followers, many of whom have been inhis employ or benefited from their relationship with him. One is Tim Sypher.Another is Vinny Tatum, who was a student manager under Pitino at Kentucky andis now in his sixth year as executive assistant to Pitino at Louisville. Tatumwas reportedly the only other person in Porcini on the night that Pitino andSypher had sex and has told police that he heard but did not see what tookplace.

That loyalty isonly a more personal version of what Louisville supporters feel toward theirCardinals. Last Saturday morning a group of students killed time in thebackyard of a sorority house. One of them, Jenna Dreher, 20, said, "As longas [Pitino] can coach a good basketball team, I don't care what he does on theside." Pitino's behavior has put moral issues in play, but come Novemberthe scoreboard measures only points.

Now on SI.com
Jeff Pearlman on how Pitino has tarnished his reputation with recruits atSI.com/bonus

The issue is complicated by Pitino's staunch and publicCatholicism.

SEVEN PHOTOSPhotographs by GARY BOGDONCARDINAL SINS Pitino's confessed "indiscretion" with Sypher (center, at custody hearing with ex-husband Tim) inside Porcini went Page One in Kentucky. Louisville president Ramsey (top right) stood behind the coach, but Fichteman (bottom right) was one member of the community who expressed concern over Pitino's apparent link to an abortion, the receipt for which Sypher (then Karen Wise) kept (bottom). FIVE PHOTOSCOURTESY OF THE LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER (NEWSPAPER HEADLINES, 2); BOB ROSATO (PITINO POINTING); ED REINKE/AP (RAMSEY); JOHN F. GRIESHOP/SCHWARTZMAN SPORTS (PLAYER HUDDLE)[See caption above] PHOTOBOB ROSATOFATHER FIGURE Pitino's inner circle includes Bradley (below right), a Catholic priest and Louisville's unofficial team chaplain.

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