University of Louisville

Mark Story: Can Rick Pitino survive another sex scandal?

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino responds to a question following an NCAA college basketball team's intrasquad scrimmage Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino responds to a question following an NCAA college basketball team's intrasquad scrimmage Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley) AP

The one thing that Rick Pitino needed even less than more NCAA Tournament losses to Kentucky is another Louisville basketball sex scandal.

In the book Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen, self-described madam and prostitute Katina Powell alleges former Pitino staffer and player Andre McGee paid thousands of dollars to arrange sexual interactions between prostitutes and Louisville players, recruits and (yuck) their fathers.

If the tawdry claims are true, what would have been an unthinkable question becomes highly pertinent:

Can Pitino survive as Louisville coach?

The initial impulse is to say Pitino will ride out this storm, too. Louisville Athletics Director Tom Jurich and President James Ramsey did not pull the plug on Pitino in 2009-10 after the coach's personal sex scandal went public. If a tryst in a restaurant and allegations (that were denied) that Pitino paid for an abortion didn't cost the coach his job, why would U of L act differently now?

Except the allegations made now involve potential violations by Louisville of the NCAA prohibition on "extra benefits" (stop smirking) for recruits/players. This situation is therefore potentially far more consequential for U of L as an institution than the Pitino-Karen Sypher imbroglio.

Watching the news conference late Friday afternoon via live stream as a shaken Pitino responded to the alleged prostitution scandal, I believed him when he said he hadn't known about the hookers.

"To say I am disheartened and disappointed would probably be the biggest understatement I've made since I've been in coaching," an ashen-faced Pitino said.

Of course, whether Pitino knew about the alleged player/prostitute hook-ups also shouldn't ultimately matter.

He is paid a ridiculous amount of money to know what is going on within the Louisville basketball program. If McGee was doing what Powell claims, the ultimate responsibility rests on the person who hired McGee as his director of basketball operations.

The NCAA has never vacated a men's basketball national championship for rules violations, but there already is speculation about whether Louisville's 2013 NCAA championship banner is in jeopardy.

If the NCAA doesn't vacate North Carolina's 2005 championship after the Raleigh News & Observer reported that players on the '05 Tar Heels accounted for 35 enrollments in sham classes during UNC's long-running academic scandal, it's hard to see Louisville's title being vacated.

With the arbitrary history of NCAA rulings, however, you just never know.

It doesn't help Pitino that the alleged prostitution scandal continues a recent trend of unflattering headlines about U of L sports and women.

Jurich's decision to rehire Bobby Petrino, another coach with a scandalous past, as Louisville football head man was nationally controversial. Last winter, a prominent U of L basketball player was charged with rape, although a Jefferson County grand jury ultimately chose not to indict Chris Jones.

Last February, Louisville signed Devonte Fields to a football scholarship although the former Big 12 defensive player of the year had been dismissed from TCU over allegations that he threatened and hit an ex-girlfriend. Last summer, a court agreed to dismiss misdemeanor assault charges against Fields pending his completion of four anger-management courses.

Is there an emerging faction among the Louisville fan base that has reached a point of "enough is enough?"

In the real world, it is not apt to benefit Pitino's standing that, on paper, Louisville appears headed for a so-so basketball season in 2015-16.

Pitino as an underdog can never be discounted, but on talent, U of L appears a borderline NCAA Tournament team at best. Anything can happen in a rivalry game, but it seems likely that John Calipari and Kentucky will beat Pitino and Louisville for the eighth time in nine games when the teams meet in Rupp Arena on Dec. 26.

Add it up, and you have what could be the third Louisville basketball season in the past seven played beneath the shadow of a sex scandal; there is a potential NCAA investigation; and there's the possibility of a mediocre on-court product.

It all could combine to create a tipping point that even Rick Pitino, with all he has meant to Louisville, cannot survive.

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