Pitino apologizes to family, university, fans

ralessi@herald-leader.com, lblackford@herald-leader.comAugust 12, 2009 

  • VIDEO: Rick Pitino's press conference

Rick Pitino apologized to University of Louisville basketball players, recruits and fans for having an extramarital affair six years ago that has spiraled into an embarrassing legal saga for the veteran U of L coach.

Pitino, however, said he had no intention of resigning and wanted to remain at U of L for “as long as I possibly can.”

“For as long as they’ll have me, I’m going to coach here,” Pitino said Wednesday evening at a hastily called news conference in Louisville.

U of L boosters and officials — including Athletic Director Tom Jurich — offered statements of support for Pitino.

Jurich said he is “a million percent behind behind him.”

U of L President James Ramsey, though, admonished Pitino for having “clearly made errors in judgment.”

“We can’t ignore these errors in judgment, and they have saddened and disappointed me,” Ramsey said in a statement. “As we try to teach our students, when you make a mistake, you admit it and right it as best you can. Coach has done that today.”

He said he hoped that “closes this chapter.”

Ramsey and Jurich issued written statements. Pitino did not take questions.

Pitino, 56, told police in a July 12 interview that he had consensual sex with Karen Sypher at a Louisville restaurant in August 2003 and paid her $3,000 when she said she had become pregnant and wanted an abortion.

Sypher accused Pitino of rape earlier this summer, but only after a federal grand jury indicted Sypher on charges of trying to extort up to $10 million from Pitino.

Pitino told police he did not rape Sypher, who was unmarried at the time. And the prosecutor has since declined to pursue the case because of a lack of evidence.

Pitino, a married father of five, had said little publicly about the situation until Wednesday, after details of his interview with police was first reported by the Courier-Journal of Louisville.

He has apologized every day to his wife of 33 years for “my indiscretion six years ago,” Pitino told reporters Wednesday.

“When you have a problem, if you tell the truth, your problem becomes part of your past,” Pitino said. “If you lie it becomes part of your future.”

Pitino told Louisville police investigating Sypher’s accusation of rape that he and Sypher had sex in an upscale restaurant, Porcini, after hours.

Two weeks later, Sypher told Pitino she was pregnant and said she wanted to have an abortion but did not have medical insurance, the Associated Press reported.

Steve Pence, Pitino’s lawyer, said in a brief interview early in the day that Pitino didn’t offer Sypher money specifically to have an abortion.

“That’s a conclusion that the media drew. All the facts will come out at trial, and we’ll wait ’til then to get the entire story out,” Pence said. “I know today the media is making it about Rick Pitino, but the story is about Karen Sypher extorting money.”

Pence said Pitino asked her how much she needed for health insurance and gave her $3,000.

Sypher later married Pitino’s longtime personal assistant, Tim Sypher. The two are in the process of getting divorced.

‘Good basketball’

Pitino, who is under contract with U of L through the 2012-13 season, does have clauses in his contract that would allow the university to fire him for “acts of moral depravity” or creating publicity that “damages the good name and reputation” of the university.

But several U of L athletics backers said they wanted Pitino to remain and hoped the controversy would blow over.

“This certainly will not define him. At very most it will be an asterisk,” said William A. Stone, who serves on U of L’s board of trustees and on the Athletic Association’s board. “If I know Coach Pitino, he’ll handle it with such intelligence that he could turn a negative into a positive.”

Stone predicted that the furor would fade quickly.

“There’s too many important things at the university that are happening. In my opinion, this will be a two- or three-day story,” said Stone, president of Louisville Plate Glass. “Every man deserves to be judged on the totality of their life. Based upon the totality of his life, Rick Pitino has been a positive influence on the young people.”

Another Athletic Association board member, Michael L. Seebert, said Pitino is “an excellent coach” and he hadn’t heard any athletic board members discuss dismissing him.

“Personally, I’m standing behind Coach,” Seebert said. “We’re 100 percent behind him and looking forward to some good basketball.”

Igniting abortion issue

Still, the revelations quickly spiraled into a national story, particularly because of the disclosure that Pitino gave Sypher money for an abortion.

Pitino, who is Catholic, has had Father Edward Bradley, a longtime friend, sit on the bench while he was coach at both the University of Kentucky, where Pitino coached from 1989 to 1997, and U of L. The Catholic Church opposes abortion.

“The Church’s teaching and pastoral outreach are clear, but we do not think it is appropriate to comment on individuals or individual circumstances,” said a statement from Cecelia Hart Price, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Martin Cothran, a senior policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a conservative think tank, called for Pitino’s firing on his personal blog.

In an interview Wednesday, he said the latest revelations obviously show the hypocrisy factor of a Catholic family man who may have paid for his mistress’s abortion. “Add to that the fact he’s in a position of moral leadership, he’s ‘Coach,’ he’s supposed to be modeling good behavior for students,” Cothran said.

Tarnished image?

Pitino’s image will likely take a hit, at least initially, one expert said.

Pitino has endorsement and promotion deals with a host of businesses, such as the Rally’s restaurant chain and a national ad campaign for Vitaminwater featuring former Duke University star Christian Laettner.

Scott Kelley, a business professor and director of UK’s Center on Sports Marketing, said Pitino risks losing such endorsement deals.

“I think there will be some brands that will be concerned about (how) this might impact the perception of their brand,” Kelley said.