It was May 6, 1997, when Rick Pitino left the UK campus for the last time as the head coach at the University of Kentucky. To the surprise of no one, he was leaving for the NBA, where pastures were greener and lush with the riches that came with the title of Head Coach of the Boston Celtics.
No surprise, because he had flirted with at least four other NBA clubs before choosing the Celtics, a franchise he likened in import to Kentucky basketball – a parallel, professional version of the “Holy Roman Empire” of hoops. He had said yes to the Nets, only to be talked out of leaving by friends during a golf vacation in Ireland. This time, there was no turning back.
And now, there’s no turning back for Pitino as he leaves another college campus – this time in sad disgrace, fired by the University of Louisville. Oh, he may extract a pound of legal flesh - $44 million worth, which is what remains on his contract, one his legal team hopes it can convince the courts to award, once all the briefs and motions settle.
But he’ll never again draw up a play, send in a sub or peel any paint with a halftime speech as the Cardinals’ head coach. It’s a sad parting, but one that had to happen, no matter what his lie detector said.
I can buy that Pitino didn’t know one of his assistants was allegedly in cahoots with a shoe company, spraying huge dollars all over the recruiting trail. What I can’t understand is, how a man who is in his fourth decade as a college coach suddenly has a five-star recruit literally drop into his lap, and not ask questions. In this day and age?
What that tells me is that he had made yet another bad hire. That same assistant, “Coach 1,” who described in a graphic, if not profane way, the powerful presence of “Coach 2” (later determined to be Pitino), likely had gone rogue - meaning, his boss once again had trusted the wrong person.
One of Pitino’s strengths as Kentucky’s head coach was his staff, and he’ll be the first to tell you that. Just call the roll of some of the assistants who worked for him here in Lexington, and what they went on to accomplish:
Billy Donovan (two NCAA titles);
Tubby Smith (NCAA title);
Ralph Willard (head coach at WKU, Pitt and Holy Cross);
Jim O’Brien (long coaching career in the NBA);
Herb Sendek (head coach at four different schools; conference coach of year at first three)
Not all of his UK assistants went on to find success. But none of them betrayed Pitino’s trust by engaging in a play-for-pay scheme so obviously illegal that “Coach 1” was heard on the FBI’s tape, allowing as how they had to keep things quiet, because the school was already on probation.
And THAT annoyance happened thanks to the seedy work of another former assistant, Andre McGee, the man who brokered the deal that landed strippers and prostitutes in the players’ dorm, where they “entertained” recruits.
Add that to the Karen Sypher incident and it becomes the Unholy Trinity, with U of L’s Board of Trustees unanimously deciding that Pitino had to go.
I had said from Day One that I could not make myself believe Pitino knew what was going on in that dorm, which bears the name of his late brother-in-law/best friend. He had entirely too much to lose to turn a blind eye to something like that.
When you make that assertion, the argument often turns from “He knew,” to “He HAD to know.”
You can sell it. I’m not buying.
Just because a coach is rich and powerful doesn’t mean he has superpowers, which enable him to see through walls or hear conversations from great distances. What it does mean is, he hired poorly. The man entrusted with overseeing the security of the players in that dorm was the same person who was slipping women in through a side door.
And now, still another staff member, making a grab for ill-gotten cash, was working to steer at least one highly-regarded recruit to Pitino, who couldn’t believe his good fortune. After U of L spent zero dollars on his recruitment, the player suddenly decided he wanted to be a Cardinal. And the head coach asked no questions.
“In my 40 years of coaching, this is the luckiest I’ve been,” he told an interviewer, in what could go down as the most ironic statement in the history of U of L basketball.
Pitino left Lexington eight years after assuring UK fans that, even though they were hurting, everything was going to be all right. And he delivered.
He’s blessed with the skills, knowledge and experience that enabled him to win national championships at two different schools, the only man in the history of the NCAA to score that kind of perfecta. But because he put his faith in the wrong people, Rick Pitino is leaving Louisville as a coach without a team.