The very thing that made Rick Pitino great finally brought him down

09/27/2017 11:44 AM

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It didn’t have to end this way. But this is where Rick Pitino finds himself, draped in embarrassment and forever doomed to be a pariah in a world where he once shined brighter than anyone else.

Today, Pitino was placed on unpaid administrative leave, which seems to be simply a contractual formality, so we all continue to wait. However, his fate is unquestionably sealed and no matter the terms of the agreement or the wording of the final statement, his time in Louisville is over. His time in college basketball is over. Worse, for him, his legacy as one of the supreme figures of the sport is over.

History will not view Rick Pitino the way we viewed him 20 years ago, when he was walking away from perhaps the greatest rebuilding job in the history of college basketball. He’ll never be viewed they way the world saw him four years ago when he had reinvented himself and was winning a national championship at Louisville. You’re probably not even going to ever look at Rick Pitino like you did on Monday, when there was only one scandal you had to believe he’d overlooked. The reputation for Rick Pitino is forever damaged and the inevitable divorce from the University of Louisville will end his time as one of the revered figures in college basketball history.

What does that mean? Maybe not much to you, but it is everything to Pitino. It’s been the driving force for every decision he’s made and every job he’s taken for over four decades. It’s his ego and his desire to be revered as the smartest guy in the room that made him both of those things in his short time with the New York Knicks. It’s why he walked away from one of the best jobs in the NBA and took on an impossible task with Kentucky. It’s why he found an unimaginable level of success with the Wildcats and why he thought he could bring the same magic to the legendary Boston Celtics. Ego and the need to repair his reputation as the greatest led him to the University of Louisville in 2001 and is why the program has another national title and is a perennial top-ten team. Rick Pitino’s ego has made him everything he is today. And it’s the very thing that brought him to his knees.

And, again, it didn’t have to be this way.

At this point, it’s tough to tell what exactly Rick Pitino’s role was in any of the scandals swirling around his basketball program. At best, he’s guilty of being completely negligent in managing his coaches. At worst, he’s guilty of participating in an extensive scheme to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to high school athletes and being party to an operation that provided prostitutes to minors. We might not ever know Pitino’s role, if he had any, in either of these situations, but Pitino is guilty of finding himself in situations that betray the University of Louisville and their fans.

When Karen Sypher was charged with extortion in 2009, the public learned the seedy details of Pitino’s restaurant encounter six years earlier and it made the University of Louisville a national punchline. There was a cover-up involving University of Louisville employees under the direction of Pitino, but he was not punished and the program moved on. Ego put him in a bad situation and made the school look awful, but he was forgiven and had an opportunity to move on. And it worked. The Cardinals won a national title four years later. It seemed to be a perfect lesson in forgiveness and second chances.

In fact, Pitino was all-in on the public reclamation and the newfound respect he had as changed man. In talking about success just a few months after winning a national title, Pitino said, “A lack of humility is almost a disease today.” Ironically, that might be the most appropriate way to describe Pitino’s current plight.

Because, again, it didn’t have to be this way.

When Katina Powell released her book nearly two years ago, it seemed like an NCAA death sentence for everyone involved. At first, thought, it turned out to just be a punishment for the basketball team and it was only an NCAA death sentence for the program’s seniors, who were kept out of the NCAA Tournament with a self-imposed ban. Rick Pitino was fine though and declared he would never resign. It might not have been in the best interests of the program, but it was in the best interests of Pitino. So the fight continued.

A few months after the postseason ban, the NCAA released the a notice of infractions that accused Pitino of a failure to monitor the program. It was a clear message that the entire NCAA arsenal was about to come down on the Cardinals, but Pitino said he would not resign. Not with this shame. It might not have been in the best interests of the program, but it was in the best interests of Pitino. So the fight continued.

In June, when the NCAA suspended him for five games and leveled numerous sanctions on the program, Pitino defiantly sat in a press conference and played the victim. It wasn’t in the best interest of the program, but it was in the best interests of Pitino. So the fight continued.

Now, as the FBI tears through thousands of hours of wiretaps and video footage and the University of Louisville sits at the middle of the scandal, staring down the death penalty, Rick Pitino refuses to leave the the Cardinals without, as his lawyer said, a “bare knuckle fight”. It’s not in the best interests of the program, but it is in the best interests of Pitino. So the fight will continue. And the University of Louisville and their fans will continue to suffer.

At some point, the University of Louisville started operating as an athletics department with an academic extension, rather than an institution of higher learning. It’s tough to say if success or money were the driving factors or if it was the egos that the quest for those two things brought with it. Without a doubt, though, the school, the fans and Rick Pitino himself have been wronged by the ego.

Had he swallowed his pride last year and resigned as the head coach, he would bear only the stain of the Andre McGee saga and would forever hold the benefit of the doubt with Louisville fans. Time would heal the wounds of that scandal and he would be forever welcome on the campus and at the games. History would remember Rick Pitino as one of college basketball’s greats and, along with Denny Crum, the face of one of the sport’s greatest programs.

Instead, his ego has forced him to fight at every turn and now everyone just wants him to go away. Not for today and not for next year. Forever.

One of the greatest sports figures in the history of this state is forever tarnished and without a home. It will be impossible for the University of Louisville to ever have him back on campus and extremely unlikely the University of Kentucky would ever do the same. Rick Pitino is a sports pariah and, regardless of his roles in these scandals, that’s a fate he brought onto himself.

And it didn’t have to be this way.


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