WKYT | Lexington, Kentucky | Sports

Pitino's image likely to take a hit

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Rick Pitino calls it "branding," and
for the last three decades the Louisville coach has carefully
crafted the public persona of a winner.

For years, Pitino's brand has been among the best-selling in
college sports, and he's channeled achievements on the court - five
Final Fours, 552 wins and a national title at Kentucky in 1996 -
into a lucrative business off it.

Pitino has co-authored three motivational guides and become a
sought-after public speaker while endorsing products from fast food
to video games. Longtime friend and popular local radio talk show
host Terry Meiners has called the coach one of Louisville's
"Fortune 500" companies.

It's unclear, however, what kind of a hit Pitino's brand will
take following his very public apology last week for an
"indiscretion" at a Louisville restaurant six years ago with a
woman later accused of trying to extort millions from him.

His job appears safe after his employers at the university
backed him in the days since. His reputation, though, could be a
harder sell.

He acknowledged to police that he had sex with Karen Cunagin
Sypher and gave her $3,000 after she said she was getting an
abortion and didn't have health insurance. His lawyer has said the
money was for insurance, not an abortion.

Pitino's attorney has stressed Pitino is not the one on trial -
Sypher has pleaded not guilty to charges of extortion and lying to
the FBI. But the fallout has placed Pitino's reputation at a
crossroads.

"In terms of repairing his image, it's going to be a very long
haul," said Kathleen Hessert, president and founder of Sports
Media Challenge. "Can he do it? Absolutely ... but he's created a
huge well of good will and much of that has been drained."

Hessert worked closely with former Iowa State coach Larry
Eustachy after pictures surfaced of Eustachy partying with young
women. Though he broke no laws, Eustachy resigned in 2003 and
received a contract settlement with the school, eventually moving
on to Southern Mississippi.

Pitino faces no such banishment for his actions even though
there is a clause in his contract that gives the university grounds
to dismiss him for things like "acts of moral depravity."

He's pledged to coach the Cardinals "as long as they'll have
me" and received endorsements from university president James
Ramsey and athletic director Tom Jurich. While some wonder if
Pitino is receiving preferential treatment, experts argue he's
simply receiving the benefit of the doubt.

"He's different from a lot of other individuals because he has
a strong track record as being a great contributor to the school
and the community," said Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president
with Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications. "He has a
solid base of support that he's built up over the years."

Ramsey went so far as to call Pitino "our guy" a day after
Pitino's mea culpa, though the president wrote in an e-mail to
university faculty and staff that he considered many options on how
to discipline Pitino before telling the coach he "needed" to
apologize.

For a figure trying to restore the public's faith after a fall
from grace, having the president acknowledge he urged the coach to
come forward doesn't look good.

"We love apologies, we want to give our winning coaches and
athletes second and third chances," Hessert said. "But we've got
to at least feel that it's genuine. What came across with all that
was 'I did it because I had to keep my job."'

It's also the job Pitino needs to worry about first, Grabowski
said.

"He needs to focus on coaching and not be seen overexplaining
or on a tour or trying to do anything that's outside the realm of a
basketball coach right now," he said. "He needs to get back to
the basics that gave him the foundation that he has."

Pitino will keep at least one high-profile speaking engagement
next month during a motivational seminar in Louisville that is
billed as including speeches from Laura Bush, Colin Powell, Rudy
Giuliani and televangelist Dr. Robert Schuller.

Pitino remained on the speaker list as of Wednesday said Mary
Kate Smith, a spokeswoman for Get Motivated seminars, and was
featured in a newspaper ad for the event on Tuesday.

Hessert's advice to Pitino: keep the public events to a minimum
and consider changing the message.

"He can't talk about the old things with the same
credibility," she said. "He has to take a new approach and use
every ounce of charisma and speaking ability he has to get the
audience to believe in those situations."

Over the years, Pitino has published three motivational books -
the latest of which "Rebound Rules: The Art of Success 2.0" was
released last fall.

Pitino has remained out of sight since his apology, spending the
last week preparing to welcome the team's four incoming freshmen to
the program when school begins on Aug. 24 while mapping out his
recruiting plan for 2009-10, according to sports information
director Kenny Klein.

The impact of the scandal on the recruiting trail appears to be
minimal, at least so far. There have been no defections among the
freshman class, and players who have verbally committed to the
Cardinals in 2010 and 2011 remain steadfast in their decision.

That doesn't mean things couldn't change. There is no date set
for Sypher's criminal trial, and divorce proceedings between Karen
and Tim Sypher - Louisville's equipment manager who married Karen
Sypher less than a year after her encounter with Pitino - could
drag into the middle of basketball season.

"That's the real danger in him coming out and making a
statement," said Donald Gross, chairman of political science at
the University of Kentucky. "If there seems to be more than he let
on, it's going to start all over again ... But if he can keep the
support of the president and the AD and keeps winning, probably
over time it blows over."

Maybe in the end, the best advice for Pitino could come from the
last page of "Rebound Rules."

"Don't delude yourself into believing that every final act must
end with you finishing at an all-time high," it says. "Not
everyone goes out on top. Going out happy and fulfilled is more
important."

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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