Regardless of where they occur or who they involve, major-college sports scandals always end up in the same place.
After major wrong-doing is alleged, the head coach invariably is shocked — shocked, I tell you — to find out malfeasance had been going on in the program whose job it is for him (or her) to supervise.
On Monday, the University of Louisville Athletics Association Board unanimously fired Rick Pitino “with cause” after the head coach’s U of L men’s basketball program finally put the university through one scandal too many.
Before that decision was announced, however, Pitino’s attorney, Steve Pence, mounted a vigorous defense of the coach.
Never miss a local story.
Pence maintained Pitino had no direct knowledge of the alleged scheme, uncovered in an FBI sting operation, on the part of a Louisville assistant coach and representatives of Adidas to funnel a six-figure payment to the family of recruit Brian Bowen in return for the player choosing U of L.
A 53-page document submitted on Pitino’s behalf to the ULAA maintained that the coach “has striven to ensure that the University of Louisville men’s basketball program operates cleanly, properly and in strict compliance with all regulatory requirements.”
The attorney also released results of a polygraph test which purported to show that Pitino was truthful in saying he was unaware of the alleged plan to pay for Bowen’s play.
It was the same defense — ignorance — Pitino used in denying knowledge of the strippers/escorts for recruits scandal from 2010-14 at Louisville that is still awaiting final resolution from the NCAA.
Throughout his Hall of Fame coaching career, Pitino had been known as a micro-manager of maniacal zeal. If he really didn’t know about either scandal, he is instead a manager of staggering incompetence.
Yet Pitino claiming not to know what was going on in the most important aspect of Louisville basketball — talent acquisition — is right out of the major college coach’s handbook of scandal management.
Head coaches always seem to portray themselves as incompetent instead of unethical when impropriety’s chickens come home to roost.
In that way, scandal-plagued coaches — and their enablers — seem stuck in the past.
The NCAA has finally gotten wise to the “plausible deniability” game long employed by coaches embroiled in scandal. Now, the standard for programs which are found guilty of major rules violations is one of “presumed responsibility” for the head coach.
Yet the standard is very different when college sports scandals spill over into the legal system.
Pence’s pleading on Pitino’s behalf Monday appeared to have little to do with any belief he could convince U of L to bring the suspended coach back to active duty. It seemed to have very much to do with positioning Pitino for a possible lawsuit to claim as much as possible of a reported a $44 million contract buyout that Louisville would owe him if it cannot terminate the coach “with cause.”
The dismissal letter sent this month from acting U of L President Greg Postel to Pitino stated “your involvement in these recent scandals cannot be considered isolated events. Instead, they are illustrative of a pattern and practice of inappropriate behavior.”
In an affidavit dated Sunday and released Monday, Pitino responded. The coach claims that U of L’s stated reasons for terminating his contract “impugn my integrity, honesty and commitment to ethics in sports. I reject those assertions. I will fight tirelessly to defend my reputation.”
As with so many coaches who have traveled the road of scandal to an unhappy end, Pitino’s “reputation defense” is to proclaim he was oblivious to what was really going on in his program.
In other words, Rick Pitino is staking his reputation on the fact he was an incompetent manager.
Not knowing what was really going on in Louisville basketball should be considered far more damaging to Pitino’s legacy than if he’d known.