With the sports world grinding to a complete halt last week due to the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, there was precious little going on this past weekend for the sports media to report on. While ESPN rolled out its vintage World’s Strongest Man Competitions, MLB Network and NBA TV went reached into their archives to send us up classic sports match-ups of yesteryear. Only the NFL, in its free agency and pre-draft period, provided any sports news of note to a sequestered sports-starved fan base. But on Saturday, we got some red meat sports news from the world of men’s college basketball:
Iona College, a small private Catholic school based in New Rochelle, New York, which plays in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, announced that it had hired Rick Pitino as its men’s basketball coach. Pitino replaces long-time coach, Tim Cluess, who resigned on Friday due to health concerns. Cluess had led the Gaels to six NCAA Tournament appearances and won either the MAAC regular-season or conference championship every season from 2012 to 2019 before missing the 2019 season with an undisclosed health issue.
Rick Pitino is a titan of the sport. His overall coaching record is 770-271. He is considered to be among the great coaches in the history of the sport, an incredible motivator, Xs and Os guy, and terrific star recruiter.
After beginning his career at University of Hawaii and then Providence, he led his two teams to the pinnacle of the sport, winning National Championships in with the University of Kentucky in 1996 and with Louisville in 2013.
He has been to seven Final Fours. He is the only coach in NCAA history to win a Division I men’s basketball title at two different schools. He is the only coach to lead three different schools (Providence, Kentucky, and Louisville) to a Final Four. Pitino also spent time in the NBA as coach of the New York Knicks (1987-1989) and Boston Celtics (1997-2001). In 2013, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Most recently, in 2018, he coached Panathinaikos in Greece, leading them to a Greek Cup win and the Greek Basket League Championship.
That’s the good news.
The bad news?
The other reason that Rick Pitino is famous: His fall from grace in the form of multiple high-profile scandals.
That 2013 Louisville National Championship?
Well, that was vacated by the NCAA, along with 123 other Cardinal victories, which included not only their 2013 National Title but also their 2012 Final Four appearance. This was after a female escort alleged that one of Louisville’s men’s basketball staffers paid her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits in order to recruit player’s into the program. He was charged by the NCAA for failure to monitor his basketball program, which was involved in this sex-for-pay scandal. Pitino, who ran the program, denied specific knowledge of this incident. He was suspended, but survived.
Then came the Federal investigation in 2017. Allegations stated that an executive from Adidas conspired to pay $100,000 to the family of a top-ranked national recruit, who many believe to be Brian Bowen, to play at Louisville and to represent Adidas when he turned pro. Louisville placed Pitino on unpaid administrative leave and ultimately fired him.
Well before all of that at Louisville was the curious story about Pitino’s 2003 extra-marital affair, which came to light in 2009, when the woman he had an affair with reportedly tried to extort him.
And years before Louisville, when he was an Assistant Coach at Hawaii, Pitino was charged with multiple NCAA violations for paying for certain player benefits. This was in the late 1970s.
Basically, scandal has followed Pitino throughout his entire 40+ year career as a coach.
So what exactly is Iona thinking?
I imagine they are thinking “Gee, Rick Pitino is a hell of a basketball coach” and “Hey, this will give our program a real boost.”
But, given his record with finding himself on the wrong side of NCAA violations, does Pitino deserve another chance? What of the bigger off-the-court picture and the potential downside risks to Iona’s reputation?
Many sports fans will say, “Who cares. I’m happy Rick Pitino is back, because I like watching his teams play basketball.” And Iona sports fans will probably be an buzzy about their program, which has had excellent success in the MAAC, but never on a national level.
Many will say that it is all of college basketball, including the NCAA and the AAU system that feeds players into the college ranks, that is corrupt and that “everybody is doing” the things that happened on Pitino’s watch at Louisville: Fighting hard to recruit players by showing them a good time and – in many cases – paying players who many argue should be paid anyway.
On the other hand, a bigger picture reaction and approach might be to say “Hey, if we want to clean up college basketball, it doesn’t seem like re-hiring a walking scandal repeat offender like Rick Pitino is the best of steps in that direction.”
That is, frankly, my approach and my question. Unfortunately, we still seem to be more than willing to overlook bad behavior and rule-breaking if the guy doing it wins enough games or brings enough money or national attention to a basketball program. Even taking narrower approach, it is fair to question whether the NCAA’s ongoing investigation of Louisville (and potentially Pitino) has the ability to cast serious reputational harm on him and, by extension, on Iona.
But the powers that be in college basketball aren’t reacting that way. And the Iona Gaels Athletic Program and their Men’s College Basketball Program sure aren’t.
So now its blue chip recruiting time for Pitino again, this time at Iona. As Pitino said earlier this week: “We’ve got to bring in six players. The cupboard is pretty bear there. We’ve got to bring in six players. Iona is a place that they take a lot of transfers. We’ll be looking at that, and we’ll be looking at immediate help and then we’ll go about recruiting the normal way after that.”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Photo Credit: AP File/Seth Wenig