Rick Pitino's legacy: Glory tainted by disgrace

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It never should have ended this way for Rick Pitino.

Never should have ended with him getting out of a silver Lexus SUV on Wednesday morning, rushing up the steps of Grawemeyer Hall, Louisville’s administration building, chased by reporters shouting questions about whether he was being fired. Five minutes later Pitino was out and back down the steps, into the Lexus and gone, perhaps never to be seen on this campus again.

No, one of the most accomplished careers in college basketball history should never have come to this. But in a sad, Shakespearian plot twist, Pitino let it happen this way. He stopped sweating every detail, started making questionable staff hires and finally was felled by one too many bombshell revelations.

Glory was tainted by disgrace. All the fun times and great victories, the witty charm and inclusive charisma, was sullied by one late-career scandal after another. All the books Pitino wrote, peppered with self-help wisdom and how-to-succeed motivation (one of which, full disclosure, I co-wrote), and by Wednesday morning they no longer applied to the author himself.

The sight of Rick Pitino hustling away from the spotlight he once basked in was surreal and sad and altogether avoidable.

It should have ended with a scene similar to the one he was part of in March 1991, in Lexington, when he was the coach at Kentucky. It was his second year leading the Wildcats, and a program decimated by probation had miraculously posted the best record in the Southeastern Conference at 14-4, 22-6 overall. Because of NCAA sanctions levied before Pitino had arrived, Kentucky was not eligible for the postseason and could not officially claim an SEC title.

So, with no tournament basketball to play and no actual hardware to embrace, Kentucky decided to have a parade through Lexington. On a sunny March afternoon, fans lined the streets and cheered wildly. Pitino, atop a fire truck, waved to them and smiled.

It was a sweet, old-timey moment – something you might see a small-town high school team do after winning the state championship.

It also was pretty much the last time traditionally monolithic Kentucky basketball truly could be viewed as a plucky, up-and-coming overachiever. Freed from probation, the Wildcats would begin the next season in the AP top five and end it within a breath of the Final Four, losing to eventual national champion Duke in what is widely considered the greatest college basketball game ever played.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino reacts to a question during an NCAA college basketball press conference. (AP)

In turn, Pitino’s stature grew in proportion with Kentucky’s renaissance. Yes, he had already been the head coach of the NBA’s New York Knicks and had taken Providence to a Cinderella Final Four, but now he became a dominant college coaching force, surpassed at the time only by Mike Krzyzewski.

By the fall of 1991, he was signing the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. By the spring of ’93, he took the No. 1 overall seed into the NCAA tournament and reached the Final Four before falling to Fab Five Michigan. A month after that tourney run, the first in a series of NBA return flirtations was underway.

Three years later, Pitino and Kentucky had a national title with one of the greatest college teams ever assembled, a 34-2 powerhouse that stormed through the NCAA tournament and eventually put nine players on NBA rosters. He nearly took the New Jersey Nets job after that, ultimately turning it down and freeing it up for former friend and future bitter rival John Calipari to accept.

The following year, after coming within an NCAA title game overtime of a repeat championship, Pitino finally jumped back to the NBA and the Boston Celtics. It would become his greatest failure – until now.

When Pitino came back to the college game in 2001 as a bona fide program savior, he was paired with a man of comparable ambition and drive in Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich. The fact that Jurich got Pitino to come to Kentucky’s archrival was a coup, and also a snub many Big Blue fans would never forgive or forget.

While Jurich was building Louisville up from the rubble and non-revenue sports from virtual nonexistence, he gave Pitino his own basketball fiefdom to run as he see fit. He ran it well and with spectacular profitability, the Cardinals making more money than any program in America. And a lifetime job-hopper, imbued with a new humility and perspective, settled in for the long haul.

By 2005, Louisville was back in the Final Four for the first time since 1986. Four years later, Pitino had to endure the first bombshell scandal – an attempted extortion by Karen Sypher, a woman with whom the coach had a sexual liaison with in a Louisville restaurant years earlier. Sypher ended up going to jail, but Pitino and his family paid a dear personal price in terms of public embarrassment.

Still, with Jurich’s resolute backing, he suffered the slings and arrows of very personal criticism and rebounded remarkably well. The community coalesced behind him, accepting a flawed man whose work was adored and respected. And by 2012 the Cardinals were in the Final Four again, overachieving like one of Pitino’s early-career teams. The next year, they won it all – cutting down the nets in the Georgia Dome about 12 hours after it was announced that Pitino had been voted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.

The 2013 championship was the achievement that separated Pitino from every other coach – he was the first to win titles at two different schools. The citywide joy overflowed. Ever the character, the 60-year-old coach celebrated by getting a Louisville tattoo on his back.

By ink and in spirit, Pitino and the University of Louisville were bonded for life. Or so we all thought.

Behind the scenes, fissures were materializing in the program foundation. The infamous stripper parties in Billy Minardi Hall – where the basketball players lived, in a dorm named after Pitino’s late brother-in-law – had begun taking place. They would be the basis of the explosive book published by self-styled “escort queen” Katina Powell, and that book would start the snowball of NCAA scandal that continues today.

Pitino strenuously argued his ignorance of the stripper scheme, hatched and funded by now-vilified former staffer Andre McGee. Having been around Pitino since 1990, I completely believed him. But that did not exonerate him from NCAA punishment, with a five-game suspension for the 2017-18 season part of the sanctions handed down in June.

Far more painful for the fan base was the NCAA ruling vacating that 2013 title and, pending appeal, necessitating the removal of that banner from the Yum Center rafters. That hit the city of Louisville hard, and started a groundswell of Pitino fatigue. People had cringed but stood by their coach after the Sypher scandal, but this was a second scar on the image of the program they loved.

Still, there was more support than dissent, more approval than disapproval. And everyone was excited for this season, with a loaded roster highlighted by one of the most talented freshman classes Pitino had ever recruited.

Then the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office blew it all up Tuesday.

The picture painted by the feds – and allegedly supported by hard evidence like video surveillance and audio recordings – is one of utter disregard for NCAA rules by a program already in serious trouble for having broken them. In May, an unnamed Louisville basketball assistant coach was part of a discussion of how the school’s apparel partner, Adidas, was going to funnel $100,000 to a five-star recruit as part of him becoming a Cardinal. Then, in July, the same assistant was part of a plan to pay $150,000 in Adidas money to a recruit from the Class of 2019.

It was brazen and calculated cheating, with Louisville fully complicit.

Pitino again played the “I’m shocked” card. Problem is, that’s a once-a-career play, and he’d already used it during the stripper debacle. This time, whether he knew or not was immaterial. At a time in his career when he was so accomplished and so secure that there should be absolutely no motivation to cheat – or to hire assistants who might cheat – Pitino’s program was back in the scandal crosshairs.

He had to go, and the process of termination officially began in that short, jarring visit to Grawemeyer Hall on Wednesday to meet with interim school president Gregory Postel. The program he rebuilt is in chaos, rudderless and leaderless just days before the start of practice for the 2017-18 season. The city is reeling from another blast of bad news, and fearing how bad the NCAA sanctions might be this time around.

I wrote Tuesday that Louisville could and should get the ultimate sanction, the NCAA death penalty, which would require at least a year without playing competitive basketball. I also wrote that Pitino and Jurich had to be fired, as the burden of scandal finally outweighed the years of great work.

There was no joy in writing it; both men have treated me very well over the years. Covering the colorful Pitino and his great teams has been among the great joys of doing this job. But at some point, accountability for the state of affairs overrides likability.

The Louisville leadership – or what’s left of it – saw the situation similarly. The time for anything other than unsparing action had arrived. Pitino departed Louisville’s campus with hurried steps after a stinging rebuke behind closed doors, his legacy forever altered.

It shouldn’t have happened this way. The happy ending eluded Rick Pitino in a city he came to love, and which loved him back. There will be no goodbye parade in his honor.

Related college basketball coverage from Yahoo Sports:
FBI probe uncovers massive NCAA corruption scandal
Louisville fires Pitino, AD in wake of FBI investigation
Dan Wetzel: This is just the tip of a horrible iceberg for NCAA
Why those involved in NCAA scandal will flip for FBI
How the FBI finally caught the NCAA’s biggest cheaters