By Dalton Ray —
With the recent investigation involving the U of L men’s basketball team, media outlets are jockeying to be the first to tackle every angle. The only problem with pressing to be first is becoming a prisoner of the moment. It’s too fresh to truly wrap your head ahead.
Let’s take a step back and analyze Rick Pitino’s 16 years at the University of Louisville.
First off, it still doesn’t feel real.
An entire generation of Cardinal fans only know Pitino.
Always rocking the highest-quality suit, the dark-haired Hall of Famer dominated sidelines of Freedom Hall and YUM! Center from the fall of 2001 to spring of 2017.
Pitino arrived at U of L fresh off an NBA stint that didn’t go as planned. When Pitino first strolled around campus accompanied by athletic director Tom Jurich, senior sports information director Kenny Klein and a swarm of media, it sent shock waves across the nation — especially down the road in Lexington.
Pitino faced a daunting task in replacing two-time national champion and Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum, but answered the call.
By his second year, Pitino propelled the Cards to a 25-7 record and an NCAA Second Round appearance. Two years later, Louisville played in their first Final Four in 19 years.
Only four years into the job and Pitino took Louisville from a 12-win team to a game away from cutting the nets.
Through the brilliance of Jurich, Louisville fans now gleamed over a coach they scorned fewer than 10 years ago.
In 2008-09, another Final Four seemed imminent. Louisville rolled through the competition, entering the NCAA tournament with a 28-4 record and Big East title. For the first time under Pitino, fans felt disappointment when the Cards fell 64-52 to Michigan State in the Elite Eight.
Over the next two seasons, people questioned if Pitino’s tank had run empty. Mixed with Kentucky’s hiring of John Calpari, back-to-back early-tournament exits and the Karen Sypher scandal, it appeared to look like the start of the end.
Just as quick as the light seemed to dim on Pitino’s tenure, the 2011-12 team flipped the switch back on — and brighter than ever.
An unexpected Final Four run in 2012 paved the way to the 2013 national title, the school’s first in 27 years.
Many fans expected a third straight Final Four in 2013-14, but the Cards fell short to rival Kentucky in the Sweet 16.
Considered the end of an era, Louisville’s run from 2011-2014 is considered one of the best in school history — and so much of it was orchestrated by Pitino.
During this time, Louisville’s backing of Pitino grew into one of the strongest in the nation. He embraced the community and coined the term “Louisville First, Cards Forever.”
Pitino had fans hooked. He could do no wrong.
Following the Pitino narrative, Louisville fans believed their school did things “the right way.”
In September of 2015, the program changed forever.
Katina Powell came forward and told the world of the stripper scandal involving former assistant coach Andre McGee. The news rocked the university, but Pitino claimed innocence.
Once the ball started to dribble, noise of the scandal drowned out. The 2015-16 Cards were aiming for another deep postseason run after nearly making another Final Four the year before.
Just as U of L picked up momentum on the court, a hay-maker struck the team off. Louisville announced self-imposed sanctions, including a postseason ban.
An irritated and emotional Pitino barely contained his boiling frustration anytime the situation emerged in a press conference.
Even with the Hall of Famer’s and university’s reputation forever tainted, Pitino owned the support from the fan base.
Every time the stripper scandal was brought up to Pitino, he took it as an opportunity to send a message to the fans.
Pitino apologized for the disgrace the ordeal brought to everyone in the city and wearing Cardinal gear around the world. More than anything, he said the university would put it in the past. And Pitino was the one to lead them out of the darkness.
Despite all the bad publicity, the Cardinals still persevered the following season — including earning a No. 2 seed in the 2017 NCAA tournament and top incoming recruiting classes.
In June 2017, the NCAA continued to work the body of the program. Suspending Pitino and placing the team on a four-year probation, the NCAA went for the knockout punch: Removing the 2013 national title and 2012 Final Four.
Pitino stayed true to his Cards, saying for the first time ever, he lost faith in the NCAA due to their decision. He also mentioned how highly he respects the NCAA rules, has always followed the NCAA rules and would never knowingly break any NCAA rules.
His loyal Cardinals following echoed the message, beating their chest with every jab Pitino took at the NCAA.
Naturally, U of L chose to appeal the banner removal and Pitino’s suspension.
This was the point where a portion of the fan base started to become uneasy with Pitino.
Many simply wanted him to remove his pride and accept what the NCAA ruled. Fans wanted one thing: Keep the banner.
He preached to his players to make sacrifices for the team and this time around, everyone wanted Pitino to practice his philosophy.
Pitino’s battle-ready mindset alarmed fans, thinking the NCAA would make an example of not only him, but the program he represented.
One of the most known characteristics of Pitino is his ego — and it’s apparently big enough to take on the NCAA.
At this point, we’re into the fall of 2017. Pitino is rolling now more than ever.
Louisville has a top 10 team. Their incoming recruiting class is nationally ranked in the top five. The staff is — assumed to be — cleaned up from the stripper scandal that continues to haunt the university.
With potentially the most talented team Pitino has had in years, Louisville was prepped to scrub away the tarnished reputation brought by McGee.
Little did fans know, the wick was running short.
At 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 26, the bomb detonated.
As the smoke cleared and people began to remove the rubble to see what programs were affected, a familiar name was recognized.
News of the bombshell resonated, dazing Cardinal fans everywhere.
Louisville was found to be tied to a college basketball corruption case that involved bribing high school recruits to go to certain colleges.
Pitino’s first response?
You guessed it. “Completely unaware.”
One can only claim this so many times before you lose touch.
His statement simply came across as tone deaf. At a certain point, you can’t make excuses. Own up and take responsibility.
The whole situation is a nightmare. But it gets worse.
Two days after the FBI’s indictment came out, media outlets reported Pitino is “Coach 2” in the paperwork. The coach, on tape, played a direct role in getting money to players.
Pitino, who had potentially the strongest support from his fan base, burned his last — and biggest — bridge.
The loss of support is the equivalent of fans tearing down the figurative Pitino statue.
In a way, it’s a sense of freedom.
The former regime is no longer dictating an entire population. Things become clearer.
Pitino was idolized in Louisville and the most recognizable face. In a college-sport-driven town, Pitino carried the program to the top.
A man once atop of the mountain has now fallen to the cellars, whether he is “Coach 2” or not.
The man who promised to lead the university and city out of the darkness has now dragged the program into uncharted territory. Louisville is once again at the mercy of the NCAA, but this time around they don’t have their familiar duo of Pitino and Jurich to turn to.
As time goes on, Pitino will be remembered in two ways: On the court as one of the best coaches ever and off the court as a cheater.
He is the only coach to win two national championships at different schools. Pitino has a massive coaching tree, with nearly 30 NBA or college coaches branded with the Pitino style.
Whether Pitino’s name is cleared or not, the perception cannot be escaped.
What Pitino has done at U of L should never be forgotten. It’s hard to deny his passion, dedication and love to the university and the basketball program.
Louisville wouldn’t be the program they are without the Hall of Fame head coach.
If it wasn’t for Pitino, Louisville basketball could possibly be like Indiana: Good 30 years ago, but living in the past.
As hard as it is, fans should thank Pitino for everything he did for the university. Make no mistake, Pitino needs to be held responsible for his (lack of) actions.
The Pitino era of Louisville basketball closes in the most painful way possible, but people shouldn’t be shortsighted when looking at Pitino.
You can follow Dalton Ray on Twitter @dray5477.
Photo by Laurel Slaughter / The Louisville Cardinal