John Clay

The end for Rick Pitino is one we could have never seen coming

Rick Pitino looked so young when he arrived in the Commonwealth back in 1989, the bright young star from the Big Apple who would resurrect Kentucky basketball.

And now, just shy of three decades later, this is how it all ends, his career a Shakespearean tragedy, hired by one school to restore a program scarred by scandal, then fired by its rival for a similar scandal.

Who would have thought it would end like this?

Don’t be fooled by the legalese of Wednesday’s announcement by University of Louisville interim president Dr. Gregory Postel that Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich have been placed on administrative leave after Tuesday’s bombshell announcement of an FBI investigation that implicated Pitino’s program.

Pitino and Jurich are both gone. Wednesday was the first step on the road to their termination. When asked about cleaning house, Postel responded, “I think it’s obvious that’s what we’re doing.” Just as it was obvious that it had to be done.

In Pitino’s case, the ugly end should not take away from the brilliance of the beginning, however. What he did at Kentucky, taking over a program on probation, one that wore a headline of “KENTUCKY’S SHAME” on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and returning it to glory should always be remembered with reverence.

Pitino didn’t just earn trips to three Final Fours and win a national title in his eight years as UK’s beloved coach. He was revolutionary. He changed the way the game was played with his three-point shooting, full court-pressing style. He changed the way UK fans thought about the sport.

But Pitino left Camelot for the greener pastures of the NBA’s Boston Celtics, where for the first time in his life he failed as a coach. And when he returned to the state, taking over the program at Louisville, things changed, never to be the same again.

To be sure, Pitino was successful at U of L. He reached three Final Fours. He won a national championship in 2013, the first coach to lead two schools to the title, solidifying his reputation as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport.

And yet the cumulative effect of sordid events, from the Karen Sypher extortion case to “Strippergate” to the possibility of Louisville becoming the first school forced to take down a championship banner to the most recent allegations of recruiting violations by a staff member, became far too much to bear.

By the end, Pitino had become something of a national joke. Be it the sleazy parties for recruits in the dorm named after his late brother-in-law or the current pay-for-play scheme, he was the coach who claimed to never know what was going on inside his own program, the most successful coach ever to be so uninformed.

There are plenty of people cheering Pitino’s fate, and not just Kentucky fans who considered him Traitor Rick. Few could be as charming when he so desired and few could be as temperamental. Grudges and slights often die hard.

This is no time to gloat, however. Wednesday was a sad day for both the sport and the profession, the legacy of a Hall of Fame coach tarnished beyond repair, his on-court brilliance overshadowed by behavior off it.

In June, as Pitino walked past me after the press conference to announce that Louisville would appeal NCAA sanctions, as I saw him up close, I couldn’t help but think how old he looked, so much older than his soon-to-be 65, so much older than the vibrant young man from three decades back.

His face was that of a man who had reached the highest peak only to find himself in a deep hole, a man who could resurrect basketball programs but ultimately not his own reputation.

It was a face I’m sure that in 1989, we never would have recognized.

Rick Pitino college coaching record

Season

School

Record

SEC

Post-season

1979-80

Boston U

21-9

19-7

NIT Second Round

1980-81

Boston U

13-14

13-13

1981-82

Boston U

19-9

6-2

1982-83

Boston U

21-10

8-2

1985-86

Providence

17-14

7-9

NIT Semifinals

1986-87

Providence

25-9

10-6

NCAA Final Four

1989-90

Kentucky

14-14

10-8

Ineligible

1990-91

Kentucky

22-6

14-4

Ineligible

1991-92

Kentucky

29-7

12-4

NCAA Elite Eight

1992-93

Kentucky

30-4

13-3

NCAA Final Four

1993-94

Kentucky

27-7

12-4

NCAA Second Round

1994-95

Kentucky

28-5

14-2

NCAA Elite Eight

1995-96

Kentucky

34-2

16-0

NCAA Champions

1996-97

Kentucky

35-5

13-3

NCAA Runner-Up

2001-02

Louisville

19-13

8-8

NIT Second Round

2002-03

Louisville

25-7

11-5

NCAA Second Round

2003-04

Louisville

20-10

9-7

NCAA First Round

2004-05

Louisville

33-5

14-2

NCAA Final Four

2005-06

Louisville

21-13

6-10

NIT Semifinals

2006-07

Louisville

24-10

12-4

NCAA Second Round

2007-08

Louisville

27-9

14-4

NCAA Elite Eight

2008-09

Louisville

31-6

16-2

NCAA Elite Eight

2009-10

Louisville

20-13

11-7

NCAA First Round

2010-11

Louisville

25-10

12-6

NCAA First Round

2011-12

Louisville

30-10

10-8

NCAA Final Four

2012-13

Louisville

35-5

14-4

NCAA Champions

2013-14

Louisville

31-6

15-3

NCAA Sweet 16

2014-15

Louisville

27-9

12-6

NCAA Elite Eight

2015-16

Louisville

23-6

12-4

Ineligible

2016-17

Louisville

25-9

12-6

NCAA Second Round

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