The Louisville Athletic Association voted unanimously Monday to fire Rick Pitino “for just cause” — meaning he’s officially done as the Cardinals’ basketball coach. Whether the Hall of Famer ever collects all or some of the $44 million he was owed per terms of his contract remains unclear and could ultimately be determined by a judge. Or, more likely, Pitino and Louisville will someday reach a settlement. But what’s now crystal-clear, either way, is that he’ll never coach the Cardinals again. He’s done at Louisville forever.
But is Pitino done forever, period?
That’s the new question worth asking.
And the answer, of course, is … probably.
I only say “probably” because of Dave Bliss, who once committed major rules violations at Baylor, tried to frame a murder victim as a drug dealer to avoid getting caught, then got caught and fired but still eventually coached college basketball again. Because of Dave Bliss, you can never say never. Not in this sport. So I’d never say never. And you shouldn’t, either. But it’s worth noting that I asked 10 different people late Monday — a mix of athletic directors, coaches and agents, you know, the folks who understand this sport best — if they believe Pitino will someday coach college basketball again, and only one said yes. Only one. And the reason Pitino will likely never coach college basketball again, most believe, is because of what just happened to Tom Jurich.
Two years ago, Jurich was widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, athletic directors in the country. Now he’s been placed on leave and is unlikely to return to his role of running Louisville’s athletic department for one reason and one reason only — because he stood by Pitino after a prostitution scandal rocked the program and resulted in heavy NCAA sanctions. Some athletic directors, if not most athletic directors, would’ve made a change back in 2015. But Jurich didn’t. And when some combination of Pitino, his staff, a shady agent and two Adidas executives subsequently created another ugly situation because they allegedly conspired to compensate a prospect’s family to get said prospect to enroll at Louisville, Jurich paid with his job. So his allegiance to Pitino cost him big time.
Which makes you wonder: Why would another AD put himself in a similar situation?
“I think anyone who hired Pitino would literally be putting his job on the line,” said one Division I athletic director who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “How could you have any confidence he would stay straight?”
This is probably the place where it’s important, and only fair, to note that Pitino has never been directly tied to any wrongdoing — neither with the prostitution scandal nor with this Adidas deal. And he’s forever and consistently denied knowledge of NCAA violations and federal crimes. But, at this point, that’s pretty much beside the point. Because the point is that too many scandals — first a high-profile personal scandal, then two high-profile professional scandals — are connected to him. At best, he’s shown no ability in recent years to run a program that doesn’t have assistants operating outside of the NCAA rulebook. And it’s just very, very difficult, in this ever-changing climate of college athletics, to imagine an athletic director being willing to put his job on the line to hire a 65-year-old with this baggage — even a 65-year-old as terrific at coaching as Pitino is terrific at coaching. And even if some athletic director would, what university president or chancellor would sign off on it and invite the public relations hit his school would take?
Zero, I think.
And most seem to agree.