Rick Pitino struck a defiant pose Thursday in response to the punishment leveled by the NCAA for Louisville’s sex-for-play scandal.
Anyone expecting contrition from Pitino was mistaken. And his bosses are standing beside him, vowing to overturn the punishment on appeal. It was a brazen response given the sordid details of the scandal and the weakness of the punishment.
Who are Pitino and Louisville kidding?
For hiring strippers and prostitutes to attend more than a dozen sex parties with recruits and players at an on-campus dormitory over a five-year period, Louisville was placed on four years’ probation by the NCAA, and Pitino was suspended from coaching in the first five ACC games this coming season.
In addition to other penalties, the Cardinals were ordered to forfeit four scholarships (overall during the four-year probation) and may have to vacate as many as 108 regular-season victories and 15 NCAA tournament wins — including their 2013 national championship.
Pitino and the Cardinals weren’t the only ones who looked bad Thursday. The NCAA infractions committee once again looked toothless, at least when it comes to punishing high-profile coaches. To almost anyone who still puts value in doing the right thing, the NCAA’s punishment seems to be a slap on the wrist. A five-game suspension feels like an endorsement for looking the other way, rather than a deterrent to college coaches who don’t monitor their programs closely. A significant penalty — like a one-year suspension — might finally convince coaches that they’re responsible for what happens in their programs, whether they were directly involved or not.
Sure, the Cardinals might have to edit their record books and remove a couple of banners from the rafters, but to listen to Pitino and Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich tell the story, it sounds as if the NCAA cut off their hands at the wrist. In fact, if you believe Pitino and Jurich, they’re the real victims in this shameful mess. The NCAA penalties are “extreme” and “over the top,” they said during a news conference Thursday, and interim president Greg Postel said the university will appeal the NCAA’s punishment, which “went beyond what we consider to be fair and reasonable.”
“For 35-some-odd years, I’ve had a lot of faith in the NCAA and have reacted that way accordingly as a head basketball coach in the belief of their rules,” Pitino said. “Not only is it unjust … over-the-top severe, but personally I’ve lost a lot of faith in the NCAA that I’ve had over the last 35 years with what they just did.
“We believe we will win the appeal because it is right, it is just,” he added. “What went on [the NCAA’s ruling] was unjust, inconceivable.”
No, quite frankly, what’s inconceivable and unbelievable is Pitino’s defense that he really didn’t know the sex parties were happening. Katina Powell, a self-described former escort, alleged in a book that former Louisville director of basketball operations Andre McGee paid her $10,000 for 22 shows at the dorm from 2010 to 2014. According to the NCAA infractions committee report, 15 recruits and three players attended the parties.
“It was crazy,” a former Louisville player told Outside the Lines in October 2015. “It was like I was in a strip club.”
At least seven of the recruits who engaged in sex acts with women were under the age of 18, according to the report, and one recruit interviewed by the NCAA said a Louisville assistant told the team it had practiced poorly “because y’all had strippers in there all night.” The recruit told the NCAA the assistant knew about the parties because he was “close” with McGee. Another recruit told NCAA investigators it was “common knowledge” that the parties were occurring.
In case you were still wondering, yes, NCAA rules prohibit schools from hosting such parties. From the infractions report: “Without dispute, the bylaws do not allow institutional staff members to arrange for stripteases and sex acts for prospects, enrolled student-athletes and/or those who accompany them to campus.”
If you believe Pitino, he didn’t know anything about the parties and never recognized a red flag that might have warned him that something improper was going on. Pitino contends he never once heard a word about the parties from his players or coaches.
“In four years, not one piece of social media has come out — ever,” Pitino said. “That’s almost impossible. That’s the greatest hidden thing I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime.”
For the sake of argument, let’s take Pitino at his word and assume he didn’t know about the parties. (McGee did not cooperate with the investigation, so we may never know his version of events.) That admission might be an even bigger indictment of the Hall of Fame coach. When you’re being paid $5 million per year to coach basketball at a state university, you better know when something so disreputable is occurring within your program. And it’s not as if strippers entertained Louisville’s recruits and players only once.
Yet even after the NCAA delivered its punishment, Pitino wasn’t ready to admit his program’s shortcomings. His actions were more about protecting his image and legacy and making sure the 2013 national championship banner will still be hanging in the KFC Yum! Center for years to come.
And Jurich, who was once regarded as one of the country’s top athletic directors, stood behind his coach once again. Jurich did the same thing eight years ago, when Pitino tried to make us all believe that he was the victim when a woman tried to extort him. Never mind that Pitino, who is married, had consensual sex with the woman in a restaurant and gave her money that was ultimately used for an abortion.
Jurich also conveniently looked past Bobby Petrino’s infamous motorcycle accident at Arkansas when the AD rehired Petrino as Louisville’s football coach in 2014.
On Thursday, Jurich said the NCAA’s penalties were more severe than he imagined.
“I didn’t see this coming, to be perfectly candid with you,” Jurich said.
Indeed, when you’re blinded by success, it’s hard to see reality.
Keep the banner. Keep the confetti. Watch reruns of your “One Shining Moment” DVD. Scrub away any asterisk next to the Cardinals’ achievements from the period in question. Yes, Pitino and Louisville may yet win on appeal. But don’t look for vindication.
After Thursday’s response, that has been forfeited.