The fate of Louisville’s 2013 national title rests on a last-gasp bid to overturn the penalties handed down by the NCAA on Thursday.
If the Cardinals do not win their appeal, they’ll become the first program ever to have to take down a championship banner.
In a release announcing the sanctions Louisville faces, the NCAA’s committee on infractions ruled that the Cardinals will have to vacate victories in which players competed while ineligible from December 2010 to July 2014. The NCAA did not definitively state whether the school’s 2013 national title or 2012 Final Four appearance were in jeopardy, but Louisville subsequently confirmed that all 15 NCAA tournament games the Cardinals played during that stretch were at stake.
If the NCAA takes away Louisville’s 2013 national title, official record books would list no champion for that season. Michigan would remain runner-up after losing to the Cardinals in the title game.
The likelihood that the national title banner is coming down was a big disappointment for Louisville, as was the punishment head coach Rick Pitino received. The NCAA ruled that Pitino failed to properly monitor his program and suspended him for the first five ACC games of the 2017-18 season.
Louisville’s punishment is the culmination of an investigation that began in August 2015 when school officials learned that escort Katina Powell was set to release a tell-all book. Powell’s book alleged that former Louisville basketball staffer Andre McGee paid for strippers and escorts to dance for or have sex with Cardinals players and recruits at parties typically held in the on-campus basketball dorm named for Pitino’s late brother-in-law.
Not even an hour after the NCAA announced its decision, Louisville revealed that it will appeal the sanctions. In a subsequent news conference, Pitino told reporters in Louisville that the Cardinals’ punishment is “unjust, unfair, over-the-top severe” and that he has “lost a lot of faith in the NCAA with what they just did.”
The major disagreement between Louisville and the NCAA is over what should matter more: the lurid nature of the impermissible benefits provided to recruits or the monetary value. Louisville contended that the sanctions should not be that harsh since McGee spent only $5,400 on strippers and escorts over a four-year period, but the NCAA appears to have taken the shock value of the allegations into consideration.
Among the other more minor penalties that Louisville received were scholarship reductions, recruiting limitations and four years of probation. The sanctions spared Louisville of any further punishment that might affect the 2017-18 season, like a postseason ban.
Louisville had already self-imposed a one-year postseason ban in 2016 in an effort to show remorse to the NCAA and diminish future penalties. At the time the school announced it was removing itself from postseason consideration, the Cardinals were 18-4 overall, 7-2 in the ACC and ranked 19th in the AP Top 25.
The notice of allegations released by the NCAA’s enforcement staff last year indicated that Pitino is “presumed responsible” by NCAA rules for McGee’s conduct, and that the Hall of Fame head coach failed to “frequently spot-check the program to uncover potential or existing compliance problems.” In its release on Thursday, the NCAA doubled down, noting Pitino hired McGee right out of school, placed the former Louisville guard in Minardi Hall and gave him the authority to regularly interact with visiting prospects.
“By his own admission, the head coach and his assistants did not interact with prospects from 10 p.m. until the next morning,” the NCAA release stated. “The panel noted that the head coach essentially placed a peer of the student-athletes in a position of authority over them and visiting prospects, and assumed that all would behave appropriately in an environment that was, for all practical purposes, a basketball dorm.”
In a 92-page response to the notice of allegations, Louisville argued Pitino should not be charged with a major violation of NCAA rules. The school noted the enforcement staff didn’t uncover any red flags that should have tipped Pitino off about the sex parties and insisted there was “nothing that Pitino reasonably could have done to either prevent the violations or to uncover the violations.”
Pitino’s lawyer released a statement on his behalf Thursday calling the NCAA’s decision “one of the weakest I’ve ever seen against a head coach.”
“The decision does not identify a single specific thing that Coach Pitino should have done, that he wasn’t already doing, that would have prevented or detected the illicit activities,” Scott Tompsett said. “The secret and deliberately hidden illicit activities certainly didn’t occur because Coach Pitino didn’t properly train Mr. McGee.”
Louisville has 15 days to notify the NCAA of its intent to appeal and 30 more days to prepare a response. So by the start of next basketball season we should know whether Pitino will be sitting out five games and whether the 2013 title banner is coming down or not.
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