Rick Pitino made college basketball history as one of the biggest winners in the sport. But it's not what his career will be most remembered for, and it's surprising that his downfall took this long.
On Wednesday, Pitino was placed on unpaid administrative leave by Louisville, and athletic director Tom Jurich was placed on paid leave. Pitino has pulled off escape acts before, but there was no escaping this time, despite all he's done at Louisville and elsewhere.
Pitino took Providence to its last Final Four at age 34. He restored national prominence to Kentucky, winning the 1996 national championship. He restored national prominence to Louisville, Kentucky's hated rival, winning the 2013 national championship and guiding the Cardinals to three Final Fours. Pitino has won 770 college basketball games -- only Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams have more among active coaches -- and had two stints in the NBA, with the Knicks and Celtics. He became the only coach to win the NCAA Tournament with multiple schools.
Pitino, 65, has coached Louisville for 16 seasons, because he has won at Louisville for 16 seasons. According to USA Today, Pitino was the highest-paid coach in college basketball last year, making over $7.7. million. Few coaches wielded more power, which allowed him to survive multiple scandals. But he couldn't outlast another.
On Tuesday, four assistant coaches at other schools -- Auburn, USC, Oklahoma State and Arizona -- were arrested and charged with fraud and accepting bribes. Six others -- including James Gatto, director of global sports marketing for Adidas -- were arrested as a result of a long, still ongoing federal investigation into the influence of apparel companies, financial advisers and others on college basketball, including alleged bribes to coaches to use their influence to push their players to use certain services.
Louisville is not referenced in the FBI documents by name. And though interim university president Greg Postel made a statement that the school was, indeed, involved with an FBI investigation, he emphasized at a press conference on Wednesday that neither the university nor any of its employees -- including Pitino -- has been charged with a crime.
The complaint includes allegations that Gatto and others "worked together to funnel $100,000" to the family of a basketball recruit in May to influence his decision to attend what is labeled as "University-6" in the documents. The description of "University-6" matches that of Louisville: a public university in Kentucky with 22,640 students. An unnamed assistant coach is also mentioned as being present at a meeting in which another recruit is discussed.
This comes on the heels of another recruiting scandal that would have been difficult for any coach but someone with the stature of Pitino to survive with his job intact. In June, the NCAA announced sanctions against Louisville that included a five-game suspension for Pitino, probation, recruiting restrictions and the vacation of wins, possibly including the 2013 national title. These sanctions came down as a result of an investigation into former director of basketball operations Andre McGee, who was accused of arranging escorts for recruits.
Pitino vehemently denied any knowledge of McGee's alleged actions and said, "Personally, I've lost faith in the NCAA," after the punishment was announced. Louisville is appealing most of the sanctions, and Postel labeled the ruling "excessive."
Now, with that scandal still lingering, a bigger bombshell has arrived to impact the entire college basketball landscape. On Tuesday, after news of the arrests broke, Pitino released a statement through his attorney saying, "These allegations come as a complete shock to me. If true, I agree with the U.S. Attorney's Office that these third-party schemes, initiated by a few bad actors, operated to commit a fraud on the impacted universities and their basketball programs, including the University of Louisville. Our fans and supporters deserve better, and I am committed to taking whatever steps are needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable."
Less than a day later, Louisville board of trustees chairman J. David Grissom said that trustees had given their unanimous support to the decision that both Pitino and Jurich needed to be placed on leave. Their permanent futures are still to be decided, although the writing is on the wall. Pitino's attorney, Steve Pence, said that Pitino has been "effectively fired," according to the Courier-Journal. Postel said that he hopes to announce an interim basketball coach within 48 hours.
This looks to be the end of the most storied era in Louisville athletics history. After bringing national title to Kentucky, Pitino joined Jurich as the two biggest public faces of the university's rise to prominence in college athletics.
When Pitino arrived, Louisville was still part of Conference USA. It rose to the Big East, then got into the ACC, securing its place at the lucrative Power Five table. Jurich recently announced plans to further expand the football stadium, Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and in August he revealed a 10-year, $160 million extension of its contract with Adidas. Few athletic departments have seen greater growth over the past couple decades, and while Jurich was responsible for overseeing much of that and the rise of the football team played a big role, too, Pitino's role in coaching a basketball powerhouse, at a basketball-mad school, was front and center.
Pitino continues to maintain his innocence and lack of knowledge of anything, which would seem to be a fireable offense, too. After all, successful college basketball coaches like Pitino have reputations as control freaks, and yet, if he didn't know anything about any of these allegations, as he says, he thus seems to have had no control over the basketball team he's in charge of.
There have been assumptions of corruption and dishonesty in college basketball in the past. If Louisville's NCAA scandal wasn't enough, now there's a federal case bringing corruption in the sport out into the open. Pitino's association with it, repeated denials or not, will shape his legacy more than anything.
Pitino has won big, made an incredible amount of money and always denied ever doing anything against the rules. He's one of the most successful college basketball coaches ever.
Yet his downfall couldn't help but feel inevitable.