Mississippi gave it a heck of a run. Former football coach sued the school, current football coach resigned in disgrace, football program gets hammered by the NCAA. That’s a strong year of dysfunction.
Tennessee made a late bid. Highly regarded athletic director hired and fired within 10 months, potential new football coaches repeatedly undercut by fan mob, AD job eventually given to an old football coach who was fired from that job nine years ago and who has zero experience running a department. Good job, good hustle, Volunteers.
But the winner of the College Sports Dumpster Fire of the Year is Louisville. What an effort by the Cardinals. Hit with major NCAA sanctions in late spring for the tawdry “StripperGate” scandal, Louisville didn’t stop there. By late September the place was better known as “University 6,” the label applied by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of New York in its federal complaint alleging corruption in college basketball.
The complaint says that Louisville entered into multiple schemes with its apparel partner, Adidas, and others to pay players to sign with the Cardinals – with the previous NCAA mushroom cloud hovering over the program. Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino became “Coach 2” in the complaint. Already suffering extreme scandal fatigue, this bombshell led to the quick-trigger firing of both Pitino and renowned athletic director Tom Jurich. Two of Pitino’s assistants were sent packing shortly thereafter.
And now, because quiet accountability is nowhere near as fun as backbiting and finger-pointing, we are in the lawsuit phase.
Pitino is suing Adidas, saying the apparel company damaged his reputation by entering into a conspiracy to pay players. Pitino is suing the school, rather boldly seeking the $39 million remaining on his bloated contract. And as of Wednesday, not to be outdone, the school is suing Rick right back.
“Mr. Pitino, and not the University, was the active wrongdoer,” reads the Louisville Athletic Association counterclaim against Pitino. Louisville says it will seek payment from Pitino in “restitution for any monies paid as damages for vacated games, championships, records, and honors,” among other things.
And thus the game of Pass the Buck has come full circle.
Pitino insists he had no idea his assistant coaches were involved in paying escorts and dancers to help with recruiting, or in setting up deals to funnel Adidas cash to Louisville recruits. He was bound, both by school contract and NCAA bylaw, to be responsible for those assistants’ actions – but he’s never wanted to pay the price for failing in that area. Doggone it, he just couldn’t get the guys he hired to follow the rules.
Jurich has been stung by the backlash that came along with his dismissal, but he owes it to a remarkable tolerance for scandal. Rehiring tainted football coach Bobby Petrino in 2014 dented the school’s reputation, as did the multiple issues with Pitino’s personal life and basketball program. Fixated on justifying Louisville’s inclusion in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Jurich was willing to take all the hits to the school’s image in exchange for on-field competitiveness.
“I actually like Jurich,” one prominent athletic director told me in August, before the FBI bombshell. “He doesn’t try to hide what he’s about.” The implication: winning is what Jurich is about.
But now the school that compensated both men at the very highest levels of their professions wants to blame the employees rather than itself for the current chaotic state of the department. Pitino was the active wrongdoer; we simply gave him more power than a third-world dictator. Jurich amassed too much clout; maybe because we paid him $5.3 million in 2016, more than the entire budget of the English, Math, Biology and History departments.
Everyone needs a boss, and neither Pitino nor Jurich were adequately bossed in recent years. Former school president James Ramsey was busy arranging stealth sweetheart deals for himself and other university leaders (including Jurich), which helped lead to his ouster. The Board of Trustees was a rubber stamp. Lacking adequate oversight, the whole thing spun out of control.
And so we reach a point where the University of Louisville blames Pitino, and Pitino blames Andre McGee and Jordan Fair, and we’re supposed to believe that this institution led by wealthy and powerful alpha males was brought down by the sorcery of a former director of basketball operations and a first-year assistant coach. Call it trickle-up corruption.
And the full fallout still hasn’t been felt.
Louisville had its NCAA appeal of the StripperGate sanctions heard Wednesday in Atlanta. A reversal seems like a long shot. If the original Committee On Infractions findings are upheld, the 2013 NCAA tournament championship banner will come down from the rafters of the debt-saddled KFC Yum Center. That would be a huge blow to the fans, who are angry/disillusioned enough that they are turning out in markedly smaller numbers this basketball season.
Beyond that is the great unknown of the current federal investigation, and its inevitable crossover into NCAA realms. As I wrote in September, a so-called “death penalty,” which would bar Louisville from playing basketball for at least one season, could be justified. Others have since said that isn’t likely – but the penalties could still be quite severe.
Louisville staggers toward that storm with an interim president, an interim athletic director and an interim basketball coach. A school that let leadership lapse in the recent past currently has none.
Theoretically, a president would be hired first, then an AD, then a basketball coach. We’ll see if it shakes out that way. The question becomes the quality of the prospective candidates for those jobs. Is Louisville so damaged that it isn’t an attractive place to work?
Probably not. For all the excess he oversaw, Ramsey was part of an academic leap forward that has taken Louisville from sketchy to respectable. It still lags behind the rest of the ACC in terms of academic standing, but it’s no longer a joke.
For all the stink Jurich tolerated, he has given the next athletic director a bona fide heavyweight program. The vital ACC membership guarantees that Louisville will always have a chance to compete in a way that members of the conference it escaped, the American, can only dream of. The Olympic sports have never been better. The football program is paradoxically stable because Petrino – a guy who once had three jobs in less than 12 months – may not have anywhere to go. And basketball, while severely challenged at the moment, will be hard to kill.
For all the scandal that surrounded him, Pitino rebuilt one of America’s most successful basketball programs into something even better than it had been. The arena, the practice facility, the ACC membership, the national recruiting reach – this will, at some point, once again be a great job to have.
When it comes time to hire the next coach, quality candidates like Xavier’s Chris Mack and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall could be in play – if Louisville comes to the table with enough contractual security in terms of years and money. It will take a lot to get an accomplished coach to sign on, especially if the extent of the federal/NCAA probes remains unclear. But Louisville has a lot.
No school has made more money on basketball, and no Power Five school depends more on that particular revenue stream. Much like Kentucky basketball and Alabama football, Louisville hoops will succeed because there really is no alternative – monetarily, civically and emotionally for the fans.
But, wow, it will take a lot of water to douse the Great Louisville Dumpster Fire of 2017. The current spate of lawsuits only delays closure and keeps the flames flickering, as resistance to accountability persists. Ole Miss and Tennessee can warm their hands over the blaze, giving thanks that one school had a worse year than they did.
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