The Shakespearean tragedy that is Rick Pitino’s career in the commonwealth of Kentucky reached its crescendo Tuesday.
In a ruling that should have surprised no one, the NCAA turned down the University of Louisville’s appeal of penalties leveled against the school last year as a result of the “strippers/escorts for recruits” scandal.
As a result, the NCAA ordered Louisville to vacate 123 wins from 2011-15.
U of L must vacate its 2012 Final Four trip.
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Cutting deepest of all, Louisville’s win in the 2013 NCAA championship game will be stricken from the record books.
So, for all eternity, U of L will carry the stain of having been the first school ever ordered by the NCAA to vacate a men’s basketball national title.
From now on, the defining point in Pitino’s professional legacy will be that he was the first coach to preside over a program that vacated a national title.
It is horrid history for a school and a coach to make.
However one feels about Louisville sports — and, you may have noticed, in these parts there’s a fair amount of antagonism toward U of L — Tuesday was a dark day for sports in this state.
Feeling empathy for the players on the 2013 U of L team — especially those that did not partake in the strip shows/sex parties — as well as for the honorable elements of the Cardinals fan base is the right and human thing to do.
Yet, harsh as the NCAA ruling is, it is not unjust.
Katina Powell claimed in her book “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen” that one of Pitino’s aides, former Louisville guard Andre McGee, paid her $10,000 to provide 22 strip shows for U of L recruits and players from 2011-15.
Most of those shows — some of which included sex acts — were in the Louisville men’s basketball dormitory.
It was an unusually tawdry story even by the debased standards of big-time college sports scandals.
So it seemed beyond naive that Louisville initially tried to defend the case on financial grounds, asking to be penalized based on the amount of money spent on the strip shows rather than on the offensive nature of a university employee paying to provide sex acts to high school boys.
Pitino claimed not to know about the strippers in the basketball dormitory.
Later, he also professed not to know about the meeting, which the FBI uncovered, in which a U of L assistant coach was present as representatives from Louisville’s athletics shoe provider, Adidas, allegedly agreed to make a six-figure payment to the family of a high school star if the player picked U of L.
The latter revelation, involving former Louisville recruit Brian Bowen, finally forced U of L to rein in its scandal-plagued athletics department. Last fall, interim Louisville president Dr. Greg Postel fired both Pitino and former Cardinals athletics director Tom Jurich.
Pitino’s time in the state of Kentucky would make a compelling melodrama.
A brassy New Yorker, Pitino gave up the head coaching job of the New York Knicks to come to our state in 1989. His task was cleaning up University of Kentucky basketball following the cheating scandal that brought down the Eddie Sutton coaching regime.
Pitino lifted Kentucky from the ashes, presiding over what is still, for my money, the most enjoyable eight-year period (1989-97) in Wildcats hoops in my lifetime.
Inheriting a program with eight scholarship players that was banned from the NCAA Tournament for two years, Pitino in his final six seasons led UK to five Elite Eights, three Final Fours and the 1996 national championship.
When Pitino left Lexington for the Boston Celtics in 1997, there had not been any substantial scandal attached to his time at Kentucky.
That makes what happened at Louisville (2001-2017) after Pitino returned to the commonwealth so hard to fathom.
When Pitino’s ancient coaching rival, John Calipari, came to Kentucky in 2009 and started reeling in five-star recruits, did the U of L coach succumb to pressure to keep up and allow his program to cut corners?
As Pitino, now 65, aged, did his ability to read people decline, causing him to hire some bad actors?
Or were Pitino’s programs always operating in the gray areas of the NCAA rules, and we just didn’t see it due to the coach’s immense success and glib public persona?
At this point, we don’t know.
What we do know is that the answer to the question “Who is the first coach to ever vacate a men’s basketball NCAA championship?” will always be Rick Pitino.
For the coach who played such a large role in basketball in our state, it is a brutal piece of history to have attached to his name.
Mark Story: 859-231-3230, @markcstory