Once again, the NCAA's response to a scandal is to pretend things didn't happen. For Rick Pitino and Louisville, it could have been worse.
The Louisville basketball team will vacate wins between 2012-14, and while the specific games are still to be announced, consultant Chuck Smrt said that it would include the 2013 national title game, meaning that the championship banner is likely to come down because ineligible players who received impermissible benefits were involved. It's part of the punishment for the scandal that accused former director of basketball operations Andre McGee of "arranging striptease dances and sex acts for prospects, student-athletes and others." The investigation that began nearly two years ago reached its conclusion on Thursday, when the NCAA released its infractions decision. (The complete report can be found here.)
Among the other sanctions:
- Head coach Rick Pitino will be suspended for five ACC games.
- The basketball program will be put on probation for four years.
- Various recruiting restrictions, including the loss of two scholarships in the class of 2016-17 that was self-imposed by Louisville, plus four more during the probation period.
- The self-imposed postseason ban that already took place last season.
Louisville will appeal the punishments, with a statement from interim university president Greg Postel calling the NCAA's ruling "excessive." Pitino, who has claimed no knowledge of the improprieties when they happened, has responded even more forcefully:
Rick Pitino says the NCAA penalties he just read are "not conceivable or believable." Believes U of L will win appeal.- rickbozich (@rickbozich) June 15, 2017
Rick Pitino: "Personally, I've lost faith in the NCAA."- Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) June 15, 2017
Louisville argues that the punishments should have been more lenient because of the way it has reacted to the revelations, with Postel saying, "Once we had the facts and recognized what took place, we did the right thing by taking responsibility and imposing severe penalties on ourselves."
Ultimately, however, the NCAA deems Pitino responsible for monitoring everything that is going on in his program. In explaining the decisions to further punish Pitino and the Louisville basketball team, the NCAA release says:
…The former operations director was integral to on-campus recruiting and regularly interacted with visiting prospects. The head coach hired him and placed him in Minardi Hall, a dorm where the basketball team lived, to make sure it was run properly and watch for any potential NCAA violations. By his own admission, the head coach and his assistants did not interact with prospects from 10 p.m. until the next morning. The panel noted that the head coach essentially placed a peer of the student-athletes in a position of authority over them and visiting prospects, and assumed that all would behave appropriately in an environment that was, for all practical purposes, a basketball dorm.
This arrangement played a role in creating a location where the former operations director's activities went undetected. The operations director arranged adult entertainment and/or sex acts for 15 prospects, three enrolled student-athletes, a friend visiting with one of the prospects and two nonscholastic coaches. At least seven, and perhaps as many as 10, of the 15 prospects were under the age of 18 at the time. None of the prospects visiting campus knew that the activities would occur and none of them expected the activities to occur on their visits. Some of them expressed surprise and discomfort at what transpired…
The NCAA accepted the self-imposed penalties, but what Louisville really wanted to avoid was having to take down the national championship banner. In reality, vacating wins and titles is rather frivolous; we all know that Louisville won the 2013 national championship over Michigan, and history cannot be changed. (Officially, the NCAA will recognize no champion that season once it's vacated.) Nevertheless, vacating NCAA Tournament wins would be a blow to Louisville financially and yet another P.R. hit, especially because Louisville would became the first school to deal with the shame of vacating a basketball title.
Of course, it's not the only first involved here:
NCAA Committee of Infractions panel chief hearing officer: "I don't believe the NCAA COI has ever encountered a case like this."- Jeff Greer (@jeffgreer_cj) June 15, 2017
Pitino and Louisville should feel lucky in some respects. As much as Pitino wants to plead ignorance, he's responsible for all facets of the program, and the impropriety under his watch is rather clear-cut. A five-game suspension is hardly crippling, and Louisville faces no further postseason bans, so it will be able to compete in the NCAA Tournament next season. That alone is a huge win.
If everything stands, Louisville will not be able to recognize its 2013 national championship anymore, and there's no doubt that it's a blow to the university. But pretending history didn't happen is a small price to pay for obvious wrongdoing, no matter how much Pitino wants to claim injustice.