As the volume turns to 11 on calls for Rick Pitino to vacate the University of Louisville Cardinals’ hot seat — voluntarily or not — the coach remains obstinate: “I don’t know what resigning would accomplish,” he told his friend and Louisville broadcasting legend Terry Meiners. “I think that’s the cowardly way out.”
Pitino’s sentiment is about as surprising as a post-bender hangover. Quitting is the very antithesis of the über-hyper-competitive culture of big time sport. From tee-ball to the World Series, athletes are conditioned to play hard until the final strike: Giving up violates the core of the sporting omertà code. As the Bard of sports clichés, Vince Lombardi, once pontificated: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
From a personal perspective, the Coach’s position is also easy to understand. Pitino’s prowled the hardwood sidelines for more than four decades — his entire adulthood — he knows of no other life. Leaving the bench in many ways might feel like dying. Leaving under the circumstances of a tawdry scandal that he didn’t create might seem the final act of an operatic tragedy.
It’s instructive that in recent weeks, two other blue-collar, self-made high fliers encountered a similar career juncture. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, the second- and third-highest ranking officials in the land, each abandoned their lifelong dreams to declare their early retirements. Both deliberated publicly, agonizingly, understanding that far more than their personal ambitions and cushy perks of position were at stake. Both concluded that sublimating their own self-interest was best for the country — best for the values that had fought for all their lives — and that quitting was the most courageous thing that they could do.
On a much smaller scale, I’ve been there too. Derby weekend 2007, I found myself running uphill, without any traction, in a crowded Democratic primary field for Governor. My chances of pulling off victory were extraordinarily remote, but I had worked so hard, painstakingly, for so many years, sacrificed so much of my life, to get to that position. And as Pitino this week expressed about his own circumstances, I didn’t want to let down my team: my staff, my contributors, my friends.
Yet staying in the race might have helped re-elect our controversial GOP governor. So I dropped out and endorsed the candidate whose integrity I respected most, whose values were closest to mine. And whatever you think of Steve Beshear; from this progressive, good-government advocate’s perspective, my act of surrender was the most powerful and important action of my entire career.
It was also the first step in a much longer journey of self-liberation. I’d been living in a hermetically-sealed bubble for years, surrounded by insiders who peppered me daily about political advancement, intoxicated by a system which only valued winning and the access and the power that come with it. Stepping outside of the bubble seemed frightening — like dying. What would my life be worth without pursuing higher office?
But quitting the gubernatorial race empowered me to take a closer look at the career path I’d chosen. I really didn’t like what politics was doing to my soul. So I took a leap of faith, and I quit…for good. Nearly a decade later, I’ve never looked back. I escaped the prison I’d built for myself.
Of course, for better and for worse, as Lloyd Bentsen might say, “Jonathan, you’re no Rick Pitino.” I’ve never come close to approaching the vaunted heights of my profession as the Hall of Fame coach. I’ve never experienced the unimaginable lows of being a national punchline, the butt of scorn and ridicule and toxic invective as Pitino is experiencing now and back in 2009. But I do offer proof that life after a dream career can be richer and fuller then the one you elaborately and restlessly constructed for most of your entire life.
Barring some unforeseen revelations — and I think we would have seen the evidence by now in today’s cellphone-camera, social media-sharing world — I believe that Rick Pitino will control his own destiny. Out of loyalty, out of gratitude, out of fear of enraging Cardinal Nation, I doubt his higher-ups will force the coach’s hand.
Definitely, holding firm would signify another kind of courage — the strength and resolve to stay the course against a fierce headwind of a continued media brickbats and the likelihood of judicial action.
But staying would almost certainly cause great pain to the institutions Pitino loves: the team of teenagers who must endure the taunting and teasing (and likely probation penalties); the long-term competitiveness of a squad whose recruiting will be undermined by parents concerned about their children’s welfare; and the integrity of an increasingly respected university striving to build its national reputation.
There’s little chance that the ball coach will listen to my counsel, or the advice of the thousands of self-appointed experts who’ve opined on this subject. But if he were to hire me for crisis management, I’d offer him a path of far less resistance than the one he’s currently treading:
Reiterate your lack of involvement or knowledge in the particular circumstances, but take full responsibility for the institutional failure that caused them.
Apologize sincerely and profusely.
Declare that stepping away reflects your deep love of your players, the team, and the university — that it is the necessary first step for healing.
Leave the sport and public life for a year — no broadcasting either — travel the world, play golf, run horses in distant lands…do anything that you and Joanne and the kids been putting off because of your career.
Quietly contribute — through money, time and labor — to charities and causes about which you have a passion.
And after a year, if you are still itching to get back into basketball — if you haven’t decided that life is richer after sports — there will always be a place for you. The American people love second acts, and are especially willing to forgive humans who never intended to hurt anyone.
Quitting will require the deepest reservoir of courage that you’ve ever been able to muster — exercising intellectual and emotional muscles that have laid dormant for all your life. But in the end, it could seal your legacy as a Hall of Fame coach, a champion teacher, and most importantly, a quality human being.