Twice in his life, Rick Pitino was a revered head coach in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
First, he resurrected the Kentucky Wildcats from the ashes of NCAA probation after Eddie Sutton left the program in shambles. Pitino came in as a no-nonsense New Yorker hell-bent on changing the culture in Lexington. No more free handouts from restaurants. No more $50 handshakes. No more special treatment for his players.
During his time in Lexington, he brought pride back to a beleaguered fan base that hadn’t seen a title since the 70’s. He coached The Unforgettables, one of the most beloved teams in the history of Kentucky basketball. He recruited Jamal Mashburn, the player credited with turning recruiting around. He won a title with The Untouchables, the most dominant force in the history of college basketball.
After appearing his second straight national title game and losing, Pitino did what any coach of his stature, pedigree, and competitive nature would do if given the chance; he left Kentucky to become the head coach of the Boston Celtics.
But his stay in Boston wasn’t as storybook as he would have hoped. The Celtics struggled under Pitino and they didn’t regain the stature of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. IN fact they got worse during his time there. The press and the fanbase in Beantown turned on him and after five years in Boston, he was forced to resign.
Pitino was back on the market and college basketball was the right place for him. After considering becoming the head coach at Michigan, he decided to take the job as the head coach of the University of Louisville Cardinals. This move ruffled the feathers of many Kentucky fans. Afterall, UofL was their main rival and Pitino had been their guy. His name was in the rafters and he was a legend for what he accomplished at UK.
That relationship continued to sour. His first trip back to Rupp Arena was met with a chorus of boos even though Pitino tried to sneak in through the home entrance in lieu of coming in from the visitor entrance. The fans sniped at Pitino, and he sniped back. Backhanded comments about Kentucky fans and his time in Lexington became the norm.
When John Calipari came to Kentucky and, like Pitino, brought the pride and excitement back to the program, the strain between Pitino and his time at Kentucky became too much for him to handle. Cal was the big man in the Commonwealth now. Kentucky fans embraced Calipari and his new way of coaching and recruiting in the modern NCAA. Pitino was old news. At the time, he was floundering at UofL and Cal was stealing every bit of his thunder.
Things between Pitino and Kentucky fans came to a head in 2015 in Rupp Arena. Calipari had once again defeated Rick Pitino. At that time Pitino and his program were facing a burgeoning crisis as the NCAA was investigating sordid details released in a book by Katina Powell. The book laid out information that he and other prostitutes provided services and stripper parties for UofL players and recruits.
On that fateful night, after UofL’s Trey Lewis missed a three to lose the game to Kentucky, Pitino exited the stadium amidst boos and heckles. He promptly flipped the crowd the middle finger, refused to do a postgame press conference, and then later denied giving the fan the gesture.
After that, most of the Kentucky fans that still had good will towards Rick turned on him. He was full Cardinal. Any ties he had with Kentucky now just hung in the rafters above the court and that by just the barest of threads.
Pitino’s time at Louisville has now come to an end, but it wasn’t by his choice. After his third scandal, Pitino has been once again fired as a head basketball coach. Once again, he has nobody to blame but himself.
He wore the pride as the UofL coach on his sleeve. He threw up the L’s at every opportunity. He took digs at Kentucky much to the joy of his fan base. But that’s all gone now. His legacy at Louisville is tarnished and riddled with shame.
For years Louisville fans defended him. They took up for him during the Karen Sypher extortion case in which he was a victim. They had his back when he said he Andre McGee was just a rogue assistant operating without his knowledge.
The Louisville fan base turned a blind eye to all of Pitino’s warts for years and years because he won. Because he was a Hall of Fame coach that brought a national title back to a city that hadn’t seen one since 1986.
Now that national title is gone and it’s not coming back. Rick Pitino’s program is involved in yet another scandal. This time, two of his assistant coaches were involved in funneling money to Bryan Bowen and other recruits with the help of Adidas.
Pitino again claimed he had no idea this was happening.
But to the vast majority of the Louisville fan base, their tolerance for his excuses and double-talk have finally run out.
Not only is that banner gone for good, but it’s likely the NCAA will blast the basketball program back to the stone age. And it was all under Rick Pitino’s watch.
Let’s assume he didn’t know about either scandal. Then at the very least Pitino is an incompetent buffoon that is completely detached from the everyday goings on of his basketball program. He blindly accepted that Bowen just landed in his lap out of no-where on one fine summer day.
Let’s take it a step further. Maybe Pitino didn’t know but maybe he just said, “Get me the players. I don’t care how you do it, just get me the players”, and he allowed his assistance to operate under their own volition. This still paints Pitino as someone that doesn’t have control over his program.
Now let’s assume the very worst: Pitino knew. He knew about the scandal with Powell and McGee. After all, he knew if a chair broke in Minardi Hall, why wouldn’t he know that there were stripper parties and prostitutes in the dorms?
Would Pitino really be naive to believe that some AAU coach called out of the blue and said, “Hey, this five-star kid that you weren’t recruiting wants to come play for you”? And Pitino later went on the radio and bragged about how lucky he was and that he didn’t have to spend a dime on the recruiting trip. Doesn’t it seem a bit odd to bring up money?
We got lucky on this one," Pitino told Terry Meiners of News Radio 840. "I had an AAU director call me and ask me if I'd be interested in a player (Bowen). I saw him against another great player from Indiana. I said 'Yeah, I'd be really interested.' They had to come in unofficially, pay for their hotel, pay for their meals. We spent zero dollars recruiting a five-star athlete who I loved when I say him play. In my 40 years of coaching this is the luckiest I've been
Whether he knew any of this at all or not, it was under his watch. And what’s worse, he promised UofL fans closer insight and tighter compliance for his program in the wake of the Powell scandal.
UofL fans aren’t buying the lies anymore. Or their not buying the incompetence if by some act of God Pitino’s actually telling the truth.
After alienating and angering Kentucky fans to grow closer to his Louisville fan base, he’s lost the love of the entire Commonwealth of Kentucky. He’s persona non grata here. Maybe he can go back to New York where his days with the Knicks are an afterthought. Maybe he can go back to Rhode Island where at least Providence fans respect him. Maybe.
In all likelihood, he’ll return to his home in Miami and live out the rest of his days in disgrace. A once proud coach that won national titles at two schools now is disgraced. His name in college basketball is synonymous with scandal.
It’s sad. But in the end the only person Pitino has to blame is himself.