ON A winter's night in 1991, I went on a recruiting trip with Rick Pitino. He was 38, in his second year as the coach at Kentucky; I was a reporter at Newsday. He was well-known at that point in his career, but not yet a celebrity.
Pitino had taken the Kentucky job in the spring of 1989, following a scandal that involved the familiar sentinels of illegal payments to players and academic fraud. The Wildcats had been placed on three years' probation and banned from the NCAA tournament for two years. On this night, Pitino rode in a van with me, a team manager and longtime Kentucky equipment manager Bill Keightley. We watched a kid play at Somerset High, and afterward Pitino asked the rest of us if we thought he could play for the Wildcats. I remember waffling. Pitino said, "Not a chance." (He knew the talent he had coming). On the way back to Lexington, we stopped at a pizza joint. Our waitress, a middle-aged woman, saw Pitino in his blue, logo'd windbreaker and timidly asked his name. She seemed genuinely unsure, or perhaps just fearful. "Rick Pitino," he said. The woman covered her mouth in shock. Pitino smiled and signed an autograph.
Pitino had won 14 games in his first probation year at Kentucky and 22 in his second. In 1992, Year Three, he took the Wildcats—including four senior players orphaned by probation, who came to be known as the Unforgettables—to the Elite Eight and missed the Final Four by the length of Grant Hill's pass and Christian Laettner's shot. Dominance would soon follow. But it's important to not forget what those early Pitino Kentucky teams were: Lovable underdogs (well, except for Jamal Mashburn), scrapping for respect. His '87 Providence team, which made an unlikely Final Four run led by Billy Donovan, was similarly scrappy, well-coached and motivated. As of the early '90s, this was Pitino's reputation: Builder of underdog overachievers.
College basketball (football, too, but let's keep our apocalyptic scandals sport-specific for now) has long demanded a certain suspension of disbelief. Think of the ecosystem: College and university basketball programs compete for the services of a finite number of talented teenagers who are needed to win games, provide March Madness television programming and justify the expense of paying coaches millions of dollars, building giant arenas and providing bragging rights for wealthy alumni. Insert AAU coaches, personal "advisers," rapacious shoe-and-apparel companies, and come on, let's be serious.
It turns out it's not all clean. On Sept. 26 the Justice Department announced charges against assistant coaches from four schools and a further allegation that Adidas employees paid $100,000 or more to steer recruits to colleges, including one to a university later reported to be Louisville, where Pitino has coached for 16 years. One day later Pitino was put on administrative leave, a move that Pitino's lawyer said meant that Pitino had been "effectively fired."
Pitino has not been charged with any crime, though some news outlets have reported that he was directly involved in arranging a payment to a recruit. (A statement issued by his lawyer stated that the coach "has done nothing wrong and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.") But it is an ignominious turn in a Hall of Fame career. It's also stunning that Pitino is gone, considering that he pulled off the remarkable feat of retaining his job through two previous major scandals at Louisville, the first involving an extortion attempt that resulted from Pitino's having sex with a woman who would later marry his team's equipment manager, and the second involved a Louisville assistant coach's providing prostitutes for recruits.
It's possible that Rick Pitino has been cheating the system since he was the 26-year-old coach at Boston University in 1978. It's possible he was cheating at Providence and in those early days at Kentucky. It doesn't look good for his tenure at Louisville. But Pitino was, for a long time in his career, representative of the product that college basketball has long sold to the public—a mix of passion and purity, shaken well and televised almost every damn night from November until April. Whether that representation was genuine or a hoax doesn't really matter.
Last week, the reshaping of college basketball commenced. It's foolish to think it will be transformed overnight, but it will be transformed. The NCAA has been pushed aside by the FBI. Stuff got real. There is a symmetry in Pitino's being the first of the giants to fall. His crime wasn't just that he participated in the fantasy, but that he sold it so well.
IT'S STUNNING THAT PITINO IS GONE, CONSIDERING THAT HE RETAINED HIS JOB THROUGH TWO PREVIOUS MAJOR SCANDALS.
Amount allegedly received by Oklahoma State assistant coach Lamont Evans to steer athletes to agents or financial advisers
Amount allegedly given to Chuck Person to steer Auburn players to a financial adviser and a clothing business