John Clay: Rick Pitino's longest day

Telling his side of this sordid story shows Pitino for what he is: imperfect

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 29, 2010 

LOUISVILLE — He was smartly dressed, as always.

Rick Pitino wore an expensive dark suit and red power tie, his cuff links cleverly hidden. Every hair on his head was in place.

The Louisville basketball coach walked into the packed, standing-room-only court at 1:40 p.m. Wednesday.

Only this was no basketball court. And this wasn't so much about the hardwood upon which the coach had achieved so much success as it was about one of the hardest days of Pitino's life, testifying to and about the most embarrassing event in his life.

We're not talking about that 150-95 loss to Kansas in Pitino's first year as the coach at Kentucky, either.

Since the Karen Sypher-Rick Pitino sex scandal exploded last summer, Wednesday was what everyone was waiting for, the day the celebrity coach would tell his side of the sordid story in what is now a federal case of extortion with Sypher as the defendant.

To be sure, Pitino is not the one on legal trial here, but he was the one on the stand. He testified for more than three hours, answering questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford.

Pitino admitted to having sex "briefly" with Sypher on the night of July 31, 2003, at Porcini, a restaurant in Louisville, but denied that he raped her. He also denied raping her when they met a few weeks later, at the home of U of L equipment manager Tim Sypher, to discuss her pregnancy. In just one of this bizarre case's bizarre twists, Tim Sypher would later become the defendant's husband.

Pitino testified that after receiving threatening anonymous voice mails about the encounter, and then a detailed hand-delivered letter outlining Sypher's demands, all in 2009, he took the advice of Lexington attorney Bill Rambicure and informed authorities.

"I knew," said Pitino, "that this person on the phone was going to blackmail me."

There were no bombshells before Ford finished with Pitino at 5:06 p.m. — defense attorney Jim Earhart begins cross-examination at 9:30 a.m. Thursday — just the public humiliation of a proud man.

A privileged one, too. Before Pitino took the stand, Wednesday morning's testimony offered peeks at the perks of being Ricky P. There was Vinny Tatum, the former University of Kentucky student manager who was Pitino's personal assistant and designated driver. There was the permission to use Porcini after closing time, given by owner Tim Coury, who testified he had never granted such accessibility before or since. There was the "private plane to be used at coach's leisure," as Tatum described the jet Pitino took to Saratoga the day after the encounter with Sypher.

There was "The Boys" nickname Porcini workers gave Pitino's regular crew of running buddies. There was the mention of a $600-plus bill — all but $100 of which was for alcohol — being voided that night as regular practice. There was the behavior of a group of adult men, one of whom flipped up Sypher's white mini-skirt.

"The Boys" will be boys, apparently.

The gallery, especially the overflow afternoon crowd, hung on every word. Yet there are so many holes in Sypher's sensational story, no one other than a maniacal rival would believe Pitino is guilty of anything other than poor judgment.

Yet there was something different Wednesday about seeing the celebrated coach on the stand, answering questions not about hoops but about the intimate details of a private life that slipped into sordid scandal.

There was a point Wednesday in which prosecutors had Pitino listen to an audiotape, secretly recorded by Sypher, of a meeting between the coach and Sypher after Pitino received the first two threatening voice mails.

With headphones on, Pitino read the video screen in front of him, which slowly scrolled through a printed transcript. As the tape played, his shoulders slumped, and his head sometimes shook.

He had to wonder how he got here, his dirty laundry on public display. He looked not like the championship coach commanding court, but an imperfect human, his foibles exposed in court for all to see.

An emperor with no clothes.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.