Tales Of The King’s Pass: The Rick Pitino Saga

My father attended to the University of Louisville for a while, and he was a proud Louisville boy, so the recent fall of the school’s famous basketball coach has a homey ring for me. Fortunately, my father had little use for big time college sports and if he followed college basketball or the fortunes of his old school, he never passed an interest in hoops to me. Mark that as one more thing to be grateful to Dad for. For decades, my lack any rooting interest in college basketball and college football has been driven by the knowledge that  they are both malign corrupting influences on higher education, students, athletes, African-Americans, communities, the sports media, and the nation’s culture. The amazing thing is that the sports don’t even hide it very well.

If you are not aware of the recent college recruitment scandal coming out of Louiville, here’s a short summary. Rick Pitino is perhaps the most famous college men’s basketball coach, and maybe the most celebrated college sports coach generally now that Joe Paterno is gone. (Here’s how closely I follow college sports: there was a time when I thought Pitino and Paterno were the same person, as in “You say Paterno, and I say Pitino…!”—which is ridiculous: Pitino is a cheat, and Paterno let children be molested so he could save his football program from bad publicity.) Pitino was placed on unpaid administrative leave after the school learned that he was a target of an FBI investigation into fraud and corruption. Yesterday, CBS  identified Pitino as the “Coach-2” who played a role in funneling $100,000 to a U of L  basketball recruit. That player is Brian Bower, and the 1oo grand came from Adidas “at the request of a coach,” apparently Pitino. In case you are really a college sports virgin, the NCAA has strict rules against paying athletes or offering them money to come to a school, unless the money is in the form of a phony scholarship that has nothing to do with education.

The key thing to remember is that nobody is really surprised. Well, nobody is surprised when any big time college  football or college coach is caught in recruiting scandals, but Pitino has been involved in several scandals throughout his career:

  • As a student, Pitino played guard at the University of Massachusetts, began his coaching career as an assistant at at the University of Hawaii in 1974. He has a stint as interim head coach, and during his tenure, the basketball program was sanctioned by the NCAA. Pitino was implicated in eight of the 64 violations,  for such conduct as giving plane tickets to a player, arranging for athletes to acquire used cars, and handing out coupons to team members for free fast food.

Never mind, though:  Pitino was hired for his first head coaching job in 1978, at Boston University. He moved to the NBA as a New York Knicks assistant coach, then, in 1985 took the over the coaching at basketball powerhouse Providence,, leading the team to the Final Four. In 1989, he took over at Kentucky, which had just been disciplined for multiple recruitment and other violations. Pitino rebuilt the program, and Kentucky won the national title in 1996. The NBA beckoned once more, and he coached the Boston Celtics for four years. Pitino returned to college coaching in 2001, and at Louisville, with tytpical success. His teams went to two Final Fours, and won the a national title in 2013.

  • In the meantime, Pitino had an affair with the wife of the team’s equipment manager. The woman, Karen Sypher, was later convicted of trying to extort Pitino for millions of dollars.

This kind of thing would get most executives fired even in the most unethical companies.

  • In  2015, a former director of basketball operations was found to have provided strippers and prostitutes to players and recruits in a campus dormitory over several years. The school declared itself ineligible for postseason play in 2016, and the NCAA. suspended Pitino for the first five games of the coming season.

Writes Mediaite’s John Ziegler:

“Pitino laughably claimed that he had no idea that an assistant was holding numerous stripper parties for recruits in a campus building named for Pitino’s own brother-in-law who was killed in 9/11. At the time, Outside the Lines, the journalistic arm of ESPN, did two solid shows on the scandal, but the rest of the ESPN machine went totally silent and the bombshell story quickly died. Had ESPN wanted Pitino gone at that time, they easily could have made that happened, but it would have been against the self-interest of the network and the specific basketball announcers who were buddies with Pitino.”

Pitino was the highest-paid coach in basketball at more than $7 million a year when he was finally ousted at Louisville. How can this be? Why, he won, of course! He made money for the college, and the networks! That’s all that mattered.  That’s all these colleges care about, and that’s all alumni and donors care about, and that’s all the sportswriters care about—as long as none of the cheating is discovered, of course, because THAT hurts the team and TV ratings.

In Sports Illustrated, Tom Layden writes in part:

College basketball (football, too, but let’s keep our apocalyptic scandals sport-specific for now) has long demanded a measure of suspension of disbelief in order to participate. Think of the ecosystem: College and university basketball programs competing for the services of a finite number of talented teenagers who are needed to win games, provide March Madness television programming and, most significantly, justify the expense required to pay coaches millions of dollars, build giant arenas and provide bragging rights for wealthy alumni. Insert: AAU coaches, personal “advisors”, rapacious shoe-and-apparel companies, and come on, let’s be serious…[Pitino] was at all times, exactly what television networks—and frankly all of us in the media—were dishing out: the bench maestro in a tailored suit, working officials, teaching, sweating just enough that you couldn’t see it. And winning. Winning a lot. 

He also notes parenthetically:

“It’s naïve to call it the “end” of Pitino’s career; he might choose to walk away wealthy and race thoroughbreds, but if he isn’t charged or jailed: Do not kid yourself. Barring a complete overhaul of the system, there will be a market for his services.”

And finally, here is a look at the King’s Pass, from the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List:

11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Him?”

One will often hear unethical behavior excused because the person involved is so important, so accomplished, and has done such great things for so many people that we should look the other way, just this once. This is a terribly dangerous mindset, because celebrities and powerful public figures come to depend on it. Their achievements, in their own minds and those of their supporters and fans, have earned them a more lenient ethical standard. This pass for bad behavior is as insidious as it is pervasive, and should be recognized and rejected whenever it raises its slimy head.  In fact, the more respectable and accomplished an individual is, the more damage he or she can do through unethical conduct, because such individuals engender great trust. Thus the corrupting influence on the individual of The King’s Pass leads to the corruption of others, through


Sources:ESPNSports Illustrated, New York Times

31 thoughts on “Tales Of The King’s Pass: The Rick Pitino Saga

  1. From a Louisville paper:

    In a defiant statement, ousted University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino’s lawyers said late Wednesday that the facts will “inevitably exonerate him” and that the rush to judge him was “regrettable.”

    Attorney Steve Pence said the university gave him no prior notice of disciplinary action or the opportunity to respond, as required by his contract and university policy.

    The statement also repeats Pence’s earlier assertion in an interview that Pitino was “effectively fired.”

    Pence and Pitino’s other lawyers, Kurt Scharfenberger and Bryan Cassis, said in the statement that the Hall of Fame coach stands by his previous assertion that “named and unnamed people perpetrated a fraudulent scheme” on the University of Louisville and its basketball program.

    “The information disclosed thus far in the investigation is clearly insufficient to implicate Coach Pitino in any type of misconduct or other activity that would violate the terms of his contract,” the statement says. “In sum, Coach Pitino has done nothing wrong and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.”

    • It appears as if Rick’s lawyers are going all in on the Sgt. Schultz strategy. Who knows, at Louisville, it might even work again. Beats the hell out of losing to Kentucky:

  2. “In sum, Coach Pitino has done nothing wrong and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise.”

    Lawyers should never make a statement like that. It should be disciplined: they can say what their client maintains, but they cannot state as fact what their client says. Drives me nuts.

  3. According to Pitino, the…um…affair with Sypher was of short duration (fewer than 5 minutes) and finite in scope (start to finish on a restaurant table).

    He’s had his tit-in-a-ringer before; implicated in 8 out of 64 counts of providing impermissible benefits to student-athletes at the University of Hawaii.

    That was 40 years ago; pattern?

    “My father attended to the University of Louisville for a while, and he was a proud Louisville boy,”

    As a proud Honorary Kentucky Colonel with actual ties to the Bluegrass State, allow me share a historical note about Louisville.

    In July 1780 there was a trial in Lexington, “inquisition of escheat” as it was referred, to establish whether, in the post-Revolutionary War climate, two substantial Kentucky landowners, John Connolly and Alexander McKee, were in fact still British subjects. If so, their property would be forfeited.

    They lost, and some of the 4000 acres of forfeited land later became Louisville, KY.

    ”A large portion of Louisville is therefore built on the confiscated land that formed a part of the first tributory offerings of disloyalty to American liberty.”

    Two notable jurors: one was my GreatGreatGreatGreatGreatGreatGreat Grandfather Joseph Willis, the other gentleman you may have heard of; Dan’l Boone.

  4. What surprises me is that there haven’t been any rumblings about Louisville’s arch in-state rival, the University of Kentucky.

    John Calipari has had not just one, but two Final Four appearances (UMass & Memphis) vacated, hard to believe Mr. One-n-Done hasn’t been implicated…yet.

    This is far from over, you can be sure there are a lot of folks sweating bullets right about now.

      • An older friend of mine played FB at Notre Dame in the mid/late 60’s.

        He got to know Michigan State’s Bubba Smith & was told (by Smith) that he (Smith) found out that he was issued college credits at the University of TX (who had also recruited him hard) during his freshman year at MSU.

        It’s not new, it’s just far less blatant/more sophisticated & the $take$ are astronomically higher

        Not unlike offensive line/defensive secondary holding, or punt return holding/block-in-the-back; it happens on every play but is called arbitrarily.

        • The older brother of a girl I knew in high school played college football at in the ’60s before going on to a very successful NFL career (and the Jewish sports hall of fame). The spring he graduated, there was a brand new Camaro in the driveway at their house. I guess everyone thought it was wasn’t a violation because he didn’t get the car until he had finished playing. Funny.

  5. Ah, Rick Pitino, that poor, fabulously wealthy guy.

    His response to the Karen Sypher’s scandal? “I’m a victim!”

    His response to the Breaking Cardinal Rules prostitution scandal? “I’m a victim!”

    His response to the FBI scandal? “I’m a victim!”

    For some reason, poor Rick’s always getting dumped on by life. He slipped and his Johnson fell out of his pants and into a woman that wasn’t his wife in a public restaurant. He never knew a thing about those prostitutes, that bad old assistant coach set that up. Brian Bowen, a top player in the nation, just fell into his lap, and he’s a victim of the evil Adidas plot to pay Bowen to come to a school it sponsors.

    He should just claim he was in on it all, knew what he was doing, and ask everyone to kiss his ass. At least that way I might have some respect for him in a bad-boy sort of way. But he’s claiming the kind of feckless obliviousness that should make him radioactive for any leadership position in any field. Embarrassing.

      • Appropriately cynical, but probably wrong. The NCAA will quite likely hit him with a show-cause penalty that will keep him out of coaching for at least five years and maybe more.

        • “The NCAA will quite likely hit him with a show-cause penalty”

          I think the “show cause” only apples to D-1 schools, so, if his gargantuan ego would allow it, he could go to a D-II or D-III school.

          Or he could go the Roy McCormick (Martin Lawrence in “Rebound”) route.


          Though not at the Tiger Woods level, this was a monumentally unforced error with the sure-to-follow fall from grace.

          All the firings that result will be “for cause” so their soon-to-be-former employers will owe them nothing.

          And the mass exodus of prospects & recruits? Fuggeddaboudit!

  6. I’m not sure King’s pass is the best rationalization here, as opposed to Everyone’s doing it. Literally, I believe everyone in the NCAA is getting around these rules in one way or another.

  7. I am from Louisville and all of my education was at U of L. I attended during the Denny Crum era and was a fan while I was in school. I greatly enjoyed the excitement and camaraderie of being in the arena for a game.

    According to InsiderLouisville, in 2015 Louisville net revenue from basketball approached $30 million while the next two programs Syracuse and Duke were about $16 million each. To put this in perspective, Alabama nets about $45 million annually from football. Proponents of these huge incomes from major collegiate sports note the benefits; supporting sports that are not as popular, that is, every other intercollegiate sport, providing scholarships, and other more intangible benefits such as enhanced school spirit and student recruitment.

    This is not a new problem. In the film Horse Feathers in 1932, President Quincy Adams Wagstaff of Huxley College attempted to recruit professional football players to help his team beat rival Darwin. Just a comedy but comedy is usually funny because it reflects reality in some fashion. In the early days of college football ringers were often recruited although there was usually no real pretense made of them being students. Are today’s “student” athletes who receive thousands of dollars and other perks any less ringers?

    I don’t think there is any possibility that college basketball and football will be eliminated. It is virtually impossible, to prevent significant corruption when this much money is involved. I think brian is correct, “I believe everyone in the NCAA is getting around these rules in one way or another.” Maybe it is time for the NCAA to follow the lead of the International Olympic Committee who in 1988 finally gave up any pretense that Olympic athletes were actually amateurs.

    • But John, if they’re pros, why are they affiliated with a particular university? And given all the corruption these big programs bring to their institutions, is is a good trade off? The University of Chicago used to dominate the Big 10 until they dropped football cold. I think that’s a great model.

      • I think they are affiliated with a particular university because they have to play somewhere and they need the coaching and training to develop their skills and body to the point they can compete in the NBA. I don’t think it is a good trade off unless the corruption is cleaned up but I don’t think anyone in the university looking at tens of millions of dollars a year is going to say that. I think the financial repercussions Chicago faced dropping out of the Big 10 in 1939 were probably much less than what a major college team would face today. Chicago still plays football but in Division III. To clarify a point, I don’t believe that all student athletes are essentially ringers. I think the majority of players are simply athletes with way better than average but not superstar skills who just want to play the game.

        • John, if you were founding a post high school educational institution, would you include high level, spectator quality basketball and football as part of what you’d want as an essential aspect of educating kids? No. Club sports? Okay fine.

          U of C playing Division 3 is of no consequence. Come on. They’ve replaced the biggest bass drum (long since at Purdue) with the Big Kazoo. Let pro teams in the US develop their own employees at their own expense, the way football (soccer) does in the rest of the world. Let the kids turn pro at eleven or twelve and drop the charade of them getting an education.

      • ”Call me naive but I believe Duke basketball is an honest program.”

        I feel the same way, for the same reason, about the U.W. (GO BADGERS!!)

        Per the F.B.I., there are more indictments coming down. They’ve announced that any program/individual that might be aware of any violations best call them, because if it’s the F.B.I. making the calls, the outcome will be different. They also established a “tipster” line.

        Duke is, without equivocation, college men’s BB royalty; think you might get a Tar Heel to agree….?

        Disclosure: it still sticks in my craw that Coach K worked, I mean gently suggested the refs not be so hesitant to use their whistles, during the second half of the 2015 NCAA Final.

  8. “Pitino was the highest-paid coach in basketball at more than $7 million a year when he was finally ousted at Louisville.”

    Not to quibble, but Mr/Ms Google says otherwise.

    From a “John Calipari Salary” search:

    “Under the new contract, Calipari will make up to $8.0 million annually (not including bonuses), which further cements his status as one of the most highly compensated college basketball coaches in the country. Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the Duke University team, leads the NCAA at an annual salary of $9.8 million.”

    But heck, $8 & $9 million ain’t but 1-n-2 million more than $7, am I right?

    The spiffs (bonuses) are obscene opulence: country club memberships, jumbo, and I mean JUMBO, life insurance coverage, gratis luxury vehicles, high end endorsements, appearance fees, low interest loans, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

    I’m telling ya, them what gots, gits!

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