In the very near future, likely as early as tomorrow morning, Rick Pitino will no longer be the coach of the UL Basketball program. This is a decision that should have happened long ago, but didn’t because of a combination of success, hubris and denial that engulfed everyone from the Card fan base to the University President. Simply put, Rick Pitino was too successful to question. He made massive money for a University rising in prestige, won at the highest levels coaching a program desperate for success and helped put Louisville basketball in a national spotlight that everyone involved adored. Over the course of more than a decade, he cultivated a loyal group of supporters, ready to fight all of his battles and defend his honor, no matter how bad the transgression. The Pitino Army included powerful government officials, connected corporate friends, wealthy local businessmen, hardcore Card lovers and loyal media enablers. Regardless of the behavior, they had an answer and those who went against the #L1C4 shield were seen as enemies who must be destroyed. Pitino made himself out to be the most powerful and important person in the city of Louisville and through success and sheer will, he achieved his goal.
But tomorrow all of that will likely come crashing down. The unchecked arrogance of the Pitino dynasty has seemingly finally hit its tipping point thanks to a new Louisville leadership regime and overall fan scandal fatigue. The Pitino defenders have jumped ship, with donors holding their wallets, fans complaining in disgust and former media friends calling for resignation. It is the end of the line and even though Pitino refuses to recognize reality (as seen by his unbelievably tone-deaf statement this evening), there is simply no longer an army to defend his castle. The question now only becomes how many people will he take down with him? Does Louisville clean out the entire basketball staff and find an outsider to jump in and try to coach the team on the precipice of the season? With talk of the dreaded “Death Penalty” being whispered, how harsh a punishment does the men’s basketball team receive? And in the process of cleaning house does Pitino’s latest transgression take down the AD many believe to be one of the best in the country with him? Being a Pitino friend/associate has for years been the ticket to success in Louisville and around college basketball. Will it now be a ticket to unemployment, ridicule or worst of all, federal prison? Time will tell.
There will be plenty of time to look back at Pitino’s tenure in Louisville and Lexington for that matter, and try to process what it all means. TJ Beisner wrote earlier today that Pitino ends his career as one of the biggest sports personalities in our state’s history, yet will likely be shunned from both campuses that he called home. In some ways that is truly sad and a Greek Bluegrass sports tragedy of unrivaled proportions. But it is also a direct result of a lifetime of skirting standards, both professional and ethical, and yet finding a way to come through unscathed in the end. I often took to calling Pitino “Teflon Rick”, as it seemed nothing could stick to him and his job was saved after behavior that would have ended the career of virtually any other coach. Pitino lied about everything, from the serious to the trivial, and now with no one left to believe his most absurd assertions of all (“I was SHOCKED to learn”), the door will finally shut.
After UL self-imposed probation two years ago (a decision that privately Pitino and UL Athletics people sought to have fans blast then-President Ramsey for), I and others said that the only way for UL to get past the Katina Powell scandal was to clean house and bring a new regime. At any other University in America, that decision would have been obvious and immediate. Yet for reasons that now have become clearer, UL decided to deny and persevere…keeping the entire regime that led to the problems in the first place. Over the last two years, the effects of that decision have been made clear. The University has seen its President resign in disgrace, its Foundation has been raided of millions of dollars that are still missing and unaccounted for, its donor base has eroded to the point that paying the daily bills of the University is in jeopardy and now, an even larger basketball scandal that involves the FBI and pay-for-play has tarnished the University for decades. To an entire generation of college basketball fans, when you one thinks of scandal and rule-breaking, Louisville basketball will come to the forefront. With one quick rip of the band-aid off, this could have been avoided. But now even more pain is ahead.
Thus while I feel no sympathy for Pitino or other UL Athletics administration members, I do feel sorry for the fan base and University as a whole. It is true that the enabling by these fans helped prolong these issues, but if we are honest, most fans of schools (or politicians) they support seek to initially justify their actions when trouble occurs. UL fans wanted to believe in Rick, Tom and Bobby, and the wins and income clouded their judgment. However what is next will punish them disproportionately to whatever guilt they may have. The Cards are probably looking at a massive rebuild of early-90s Kentucky proportion and may find themselves without postseason play for multiple years. The words “Death Penalty” have been thrown about and there was probably a time I would have rooted for such a result. But the reality is that the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky need UL Basketball to exist for the betterment of the economy. Downtown Louisville and the Yum Center without UL games will be unsustainable and if that area fails, it will have a dramatic impact on the local and state economy. Even though they are our rivals, they matter also as our neighbors and while I do not pity their plight, I hope the comeuppance they receive shows some degree of mercy for them and our state.
Tomorrow the Pitino era likely ends and with it, a decade of UL sports that saw some of the greatest successes the University has ever known. Rick Pitino will stomp off into the sunset, likely angrily shouting his innocence of all charges, ignorance of the facts at hand and overall unfairness of the situation to him. But he is no victim and he certainly is no martyr. His fall is great because his scandalous reign sustained solely by absolute power and fear, inevitably led to his ultimate downfall. He will leave the University in worse shape than when he arrived and with a second fan base that once adored him, now looking away in shame. Rick Pitino, one of the top college coaches in the history of the profession, is now destined to be remembered mostly as a cheater of epic proportions and a punchline to sexual stamina jokes. It is a sad ending, but unfortunately one well-earned.