A lengthy sit-down interview on SportsCenter provided Rick Pitino with an ideal platform to begin repairing his tarnished reputation by taking responsibility for the scandals that have engulfed the Louisville basketball program.
Pitino instead squandered that opportunity Wednesday night by striking a combative tone and placing blame on others for the mistakes that led to his firing.
A drained yet defiant Pitino opened his conversation with ESPN’s Jay Bilas by reiterating the same message that he has emphasized the past few weeks: He was unaware of the scheme to funnel $100,000 from Adidas to a prized recruit in return for his commitment to Louisville. Pitino again insisted he only learned about the bribe allegedly given to Brian Bowen’s family after the FBI revealed it last month as part of its investigation into corruption in college basketball.
Earlier this week, Pitino voluntarily released text messages between him and Adidas executive Jim Gatto sent around the time of Bowen’s commitment. On Wednesday, Pitino said he had passed a lie detector test asking whether he was aware of a payment made from Adidas to Bowen.
“I had no knowledge of any of this,” Pitino said.
It’s difficult to believe that a control freak like Pitino would have no idea how his assistants were operating on the recruiting trail, but in reality whether he knew or not hardly matters. Louisville had ample reason to fire Pitino even if he truly was as clueless as he claims to be.
In Oct. 2015, escort Katina Powell wrote a book in which she alleged she was paid $10,000 over four years to provide women to dance for and have sex with Louisville players and recruits at an on-campus dorm. Pitino kept his job by claiming ignorance and insisting the entire tawdry plan was the brainchild of former director of basketball operations Andre McGee.
The sheer audacity and stupidity of the scheme made Pitino’s claims more credible. There were too many smarter methods of illegally enticing recruits for a coach as shrewd and experienced as Pitino to knowingly resort to something so sloppy.
But the problem with the rogue assistant card is that you only get to play it once. Not even a hall of fame coach who has won national titles at two different schools can plead ignorance a second time and get away with it.
Louisville was correct to immediately place Pitino on unpaid leave and begin the termination process after federal investigators revealed an unnamed member of Louisville’s coaching staff was complicit in the plot to funnel money to Bowen.
If Pitino knew about either that or the escort scheme, that’s deplorable. If he didn’t know what was going on in his own program, that’s inexcusable too.
What Pitino should’ve done during Wednesday night’s interview is acknowledge that he’s at fault. He should have said that it doesn’t matter what he knew or didn’t know. He hired those staffers, and he’s responsible for anything that goes on in his program.
Pitino did “take ownership for two bad hires,” but it quickly became clear he was more interested in dishing out blame than accepting it.
He insisted he couldn’t possibly have known about any impropriety involving Bowen even though his recruitment had more red flags than a Chinese military parade. This was a kid who wasn’t even considering Louisville until mid-May of his senior year yet chose the Cardinals over a half dozen other top programs just a few weeks later.
Pitino lashed out at Adidas for its role in costing him his job.
“They’re largely responsible for what has gone on,” he said. “They took my love and my passion away from me.”
Pitino also bitterly complained about the Louisville board of trustees dismissing him “before facts came out.”
“They’re a board hired by the governor to deal with the president situation a while ago,” he said. “They’re not the University of Louisville that I know.”
There was no emotional mea culpa from Pitino, no apology or remorse.
This was Pitino’s chance to come across contrite and sympathetic in front of a national TV audience. In a hail of angry words and scattershot accusations, he squandered it.
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