He’s among the most successful and charismatic people in the Western World, but I’m not sure success and charisma will save Rick Pitino. This isn’t He Said/She Said. This is He Admitted To Police, which is an altogether different thing. And here, according to Andrew Wolfson of the Courier-Journal, is what the Louisville basketball coach has said he did:
• Met a woman in a restaurant and, after the establishment had closed its doors, had sex with the woman while an assistant was within earshot.
• Gave the woman $3,000 to have an abortion after she informed him she was pregnant.
• Met with the woman at the condominium of the team’s equipment manager, who would subsequently marry the woman.
Were he still an NBA coach, this would still be a seamy matter. Because Pitino works for a state-supported institution of higher learning, that makes it something more. The University of Louisville is in business not just to sell tickets to basketball games but to provide an education for the young and impressionable. Is such behavior, even if it happened more than six years ago, the sort a university can condone?
Rick Pitino’s marriage has long been the subject of much Bluegrass conjecture, but he remains wedded to Joanne Pitino, mother of his five children. (One of those, son Richard, just left his father’s staff to go work for Billy Donovan at Florida.) Beyond that, Pitino is Catholic. While coaching at both Kentucky and Louisville, Pitino has had a priest — Father Bradley, no relation — sit on the team bench. The Catholic Church does not condone abortion in any form.
This story has come to light only because Pitino reported to the FBI in April that the woman in question — Karen Sypher (nee Cunagin) — had made extortion demands through her now-estranged husband: First for college tuition for her children (she has four), two cars and $3,000 a month; then for $10 million. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to the FBI and extortion. Pitino has been charged with nothing. (Sypher has accused Pitino of raping her both at the restaurant and at the equipment manager’s condominium.)
But it’s not Sypher who’s the most recognizable person in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The truth might well be on Pitino’s side, but it’s an ugly truth.
Think of it this way: The enthusiasm for and scrutiny of basketball in Kentucky can be likened to the fervor for football in Alabama. And wasn’t Mike Price dumped as head coach by the Crimson Tide before coaching a game after reports surfaced that he’d had sex with a stripper in Pensacola, Fla.?
Price denies to this day such an encounter took place. (He settled a lawsuit with Sports Illustrated, which had reported the alleged assignation, out of court.) Pitino has admitted to having sex with Sypher and giving her $3,000. (Though his lawyer claims the money was for her to buy health insurance, not to have an abortion.)
Both the University of Louisville’s president and athletics director released statements in the wake of the Courier-Journal’s report. AD Tom Jurich: “We stand by [Pitino] and his family during this process.” But James Ramsey, the president, admitted: “I’ve now been informed that there may be other details which, if true, I find surprising.”
As Pete Thamel of the New York Times has noted: “There aren’t a lot of historical touchstones here, especially for college. The Patriots never considered firing Bill Belichick when his name popped up in as the ‘other man’ in a bitter New Jersey divorce case.”
And that’s the point. Belichick is a professional coach. He’s paid to win games, period. Pitino is paid — $2.25 million — to win, yes, but also to conduct himself in a way that confers honor on the University of Louisville. (Full disclosure: My dad was a U of L alum; I’m a Kentucky grad.)
He’s one of the best coaches in the business, but I’m thinking Rick Pitino isn’t long for campus life. Don’t look for Louisville to fire him, but look for a best-for-both-parties separation between the school and its famous coach. Look for him to be back in the NBA within 10 months.
Update: Pitino apologized for his indiscretion Wednesday and, according to Marlen Garcia’s story in USA Today, vowed to remain at U of L. And president Ramsey released another statement: “As we try to teach our students, when you make a mistake, you admit it and right it as best you can. Coach has done that today.”