In 2017, the University of Louisville basketball program was implicated — along with five other programs — in a federal investigation of college basketball that exposed bribery and corruption. Rick Pitino, who had coached the team for 16 years, was identified by the investigation. The findings alleged that he had been part of a plan to funnel $100,000 — with the help of Adidas — to the family of a recruit in exchange for joining the Louisville Cardinals. It is a charge Pitino unequivocally denies. In the wake of negative fallout from the investigation, he was fired in October 2017. Here, in an exclusive excerpt from his upcoming memoir, “Pitino: My Story” (Diversion Books, out Sept. 4) Pitino tells his side of the story.
On April 12, 2017, University of Louisville Board of Trustees vice chairman [and soon-to-be-former Papa John’s Pizza CEO] John Schnatter took a very public shot at athletic director Tom Jurich during a board meeting.
Charging “the leadership” of the athletics department is “invisible” to the university’s governing board, Schnatter said, “The athletics thing scares me. . . . Until you fix athletics, you cannot fix this university.”
He didn’t mention Tom by name, but his target was obvious. It was an interesting statement for a number of reasons: It came from out of left field; it offered no specifics in his attack on one of the most profitable athletic departments in America; and Schnatter, at the time of his attack, was a member of the school’s athletics association board.
So what was Schnatter’s motive? By publicly tarring Tom’s leadership and his department, was Schnatter laying the groundwork for further attacks?
On June 17, 2017, the NCAA Committee on Infractions issued its decision on the scandal and announced penalties against the Louisville basketball program, including four years of probation and other penalties — punishments that would hurt the school financially. The moves would also hurt our recruiting efforts because the Cardinals TV and tournament exposure — something every player wants — had been taken away. The penalties were poised to destroy campus morale and turn the University of Louisville into a community of outcasts.
Acting U of L president Greg Postel immediately announced Louisville would appeal the penalties for being ridiculously harsh. He also singled me out: “This ruling is also unfair to Coach Pitino, who we believe could not have known about the illicit activities.”
‘I didn’t invent my career or my success or the impact others were saying I had on them.’
Eleven days later, I attended a board of trustees meeting at Tom’s suggestion. He thought I should tell the board my strategy on how to frame the university appeal. I was given a light five-game suspension that I believed I would overturn on appeal.
I distributed a 26-page booklet to the board members at the meeting. My idea was to introduce myself and establish my reputation as a coach who has always run disciplined programs. It recounted my coaching career: 770 wins, 7 Final Four appearances, 2 National Championships, 16 first-round draft picks, and 15 seasons of 20+ wins. But the part of the booklet I was most proud of was the testimonial section, filled with appraisals from my former assistant coaches and players.
The board members looked at the booklet. “This is self-serving,” one of them said in a voice dripping with contempt.
Of course it was self-serving! My reputation and the reputation of the school was on the line. But it wasn’t fiction. I didn’t make up those quotes. I didn’t invent my career or my success or the impact others were saying I had on them.
After this exchange, Schnatter joined the proceedings via video conference. He started ranting about how the NCAA had charged my program with seventeen Level 1 violations, which of course wasn’t even close to the truth. We were hit with three Level 1 violations and a Level 2 violation. Then he said: “I have a problem with coaches coming to trustees meetings. What’s next, the women’s volleyball coach coming in there?”
That was a pretty sexist remark. But his entire attitude was disrespectful and nasty.
He kept telling us, “I’m here with Peyton.” He mentioned it a number of times. At first, I couldn’t figure it out, because when I hear the name Peyton, I immediately think of my great Cardinal guard Peyton Siva, and I couldn’t imagine the two of them hanging out. Then Schnatter finally indicated the Peyton in question was Peyton Manning. His behavior was bizarre and Tom and I looked at each other, as Schnatter kept walking in and out of the video conference screen. He seemed unhinged. We later found out that appearing at a meeting via video conferencing was a violation of board regulations. But why should that matter to John Schnatter?
By the end of the meeting, I realized these new so-called “stewards” of Louisville had absolutely no interest in establishing the truth, working with me, or defending the basketball program. It was clear they were not supporters of mine.
The next day I gathered everyone on the staff — from our trainers to strength coaches to assistant coaches to our administrative assistants — and I repeated my mantra: “Don’t even think about jaywalking. These people are out to get me. Do everything by the book. If there’s anything in question, call compliance.”
My staff was used to hearing this from me. But now I was adamant. Over and over and over, I preached compliance. They probably thought I was losing it. It was all I talked about: Every single detail had to be logged and every single regulation needed to be followed.
Unfortunately, on Tuesday, September 26, 2017, the board of trustees got the opportunity they’d been waiting for. The Department of Justice announced its slew of arrests. As soon as the alleged Louisville-Adidas pay-to-play angle surfaced, Acting President Postel and Board Chairman J. David Grissom asked Tom and me to resign in separate meetings that lasted less than five minutes total.
Since neither of us had done anything wrong, we both said: “Absolutely not.”
Postel, who didn’t ask about the details of the case or whether any of the allegations were true, said: “If you won’t resign, you will be fired. You need to leave campus right now.”
I said I needed to speak to my team. Postel told me to leave campus immediately after.
I went to see my players with what felt like a ton of bricks in my heart. I had brought them here expecting to coach them as I had so many other terrific players. And now, I was forbidden to be there for them. It was a very emotional meeting. I told the team I didn’t know why I had been fired, because I had no part in any wrongdoing. Then I told them I loved them, I would be rooting for them, and wanted them to make me proud. Then I walked up the stairs to my office, wondering what I would take home with me after all these years.
A locksmith was changing the locks on my office door. It was a shocking sight. My job, a huge part of my identity, was being stripped from me. In fact, it was already gone.
I asked him to stop so I could get my personal belongings.
My wife Joanne and I flew out of town that afternoon. We never returned to our house again.
Later that day, the board announced they were suspending Tom with paid leave. Then Postel, the guy who had defended me just two months earlier against the NCAA findings, announced the school had placed me on indefinite unpaid administrative leave.
In other words, we were both effectively fired with no investigation, no trial, no nothing. When it came to rushing to judgment, these guys could teach a master class.
Given the ensuing media firestorm, I could understand the intense pressure on the administration to condemn me and fire me. But there were strong reasons to keep both Tom and me at the school. For one, the DOJ complaints didn’t accuse me of a damn thing and didn’t even allude to Tom. For another, the school was appealing the NCAA sanctions — which, to this day, have not resulted in a single criminal charge.
But few people in power at the university cared about this. My lawyers Steve Pence and Kurt Scharfenberger met with the board for an hour. They presented a letter certifying I had passed a polygraph test — administered by a respected ex-FBI agent who specializes in teaching polygraphs — that showed I knew nothing about alleged payments to recruits or their families, or any alleged scheme by Adidas. None of this made any impact on the university’s decision makers.
The U of L Athletics Association voted unanimously to fire me on October 16. Two days later, the Board of Trustees voted 10–3 to fire Tom.
By firing us — the two figures in the best position to defend the athletic program against NCAA findings — the board was effectively saying: “We don’t care.” Worse, they seemed to be sending a silent message to the NCAA: “Penalize Louisville, ban Louisville, destroy Louisville’s reputation.” Instead of defending the university, they were rolling over to be utterly decimated. They could have fired us at the end of the year and allowed us to help defend the case with the appeals committee.
There was another effect caused by my termination that I’m sure the Louisville board members never gave a moment’s thought. Their actions impacted the lives and future of a number of players on the Louisville basketball team. In preseason polls for the 2017–18 season, the Louisville Cardinals were a top ten ranked team. Five of our players — Deng Adel, V.J. King, Anas Mahmoud, Ray Spalding, and Brian Bowen were projected as 2018 NBA draft picks going into the season. As of August 2017 ESPN had V.J. and Ray as high second-round picks with Anas going later. NBADraft.net had Deng as an early second- rounder. As for Bowen, Bleacher Report projected him as a late first-round pick.
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Ten months later, when 2018 draft was held on June 21, only one out of the five projected players — was drafted. Ray Spalding was taken in the second-round with the 56th pick.
Of course, it’s impossible to definitively say my presence coaching the team would have assured the players of landing in the draft. But playing within a stable, highly-ranked program would have given these players the kind of positive attention that can only help their draft prospects. And playing on a team that could receive an NCAA Tournament bid would have given them even more attention in increasingly competitive and pressure-filled situations.
It does not seem to be a huge stretch to say the board’s decision to fire me likely robbed some of these players of their professional careers.
From the book “Pitino: My Story,” published by Diversion Books, © 2018 by Rick Pitino.
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