The drama surrounding UofL’s basketball program will last well beyond the publicity of any other school this season. Not even the NCAA Champion will be in the news as long as the Cardinals this spring and summer. However, while that drama plays out like a daytime soap opera, filled with investigations into stripper parties, sex, soliciting prostitution, child trafficking and recruiting violations, not to mention the potential for criminal investigations, one question remains: Will the main character be back next season?
Head Coach Rick Pitino is only the second UofL coach in my lifetime. The program I have followed since I was born has been remarkably stable for those 32 years (45 years if you go back to the beginning of Denny Crum’s tenure), led by two Hall of Fame head coaches. And outside of one post-season ban in the late ’90s due to minor recruiting violations, the program has remained squeaky clean. So the sudden scandal, which led to the untimely demise of a national title contender, was more shocking than anything I could have imagined.
The details as we know them are horrific. It is no secret that some of these young women strip and dance for money, and that prostitution is illegal. This story not only involves all of the above, as well as potential prostituting of two underage girls. My publisher also made the important point that we should not ignore that any underage recruits could have been victims of sexual abuse. Put another way: If this had been a group of underage, female recruits and male strippers were hired for entertainment, we would think of it as sexual abuse.
Ultimately, the scandal itself is much bigger than basketball … which is why I’m reserving final judgment until that investigation and story play out fully.
From a basketball perspective, however, this has been a tragedy. The story of Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, who transferred to UofL for the sole purpose of playing in the NCAA tournament, is heartbreaking. (Fortunately, they are two class acts, mature beyond their age, and made us all proud to cheer for them through this crisis.) For the rest of the team, they missed not only one season of the tournament, but a legitimate opportunity to win the ACC conference and NCAA tournaments. Who knows how the last nine games of the season would have played out if they weren’t banned, but judging from their place amongst their peers, they could have been a top-four seed in the tournament. (They finished fourth in the ACC, between Miami and Duke who were three and four seeds respectively.) FiveThirtyEight.com, a group that provides statistical outlooks in politics and sports, found that of all the teams to have not particpated in an NCAA tournament, UofL is the third best since 1985.
But back to the big soap opera cliffhanger: Will the main character be back? Will Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino return to UofL for his 16th year?
Personally, I not only support a return, but I hope and encourage a return. In purely logical, rational terms I hope he comes back for one of two reasons: (1) If he did nothing wrong, he would stand by his team and program, and captain the ship back to safe waters. Or (2) if he was implicated in the scandal, he should suffer through the shameful, publicly-humiliating fall-from-grace he would absolutely deserve.
That said, if the investigation does not unveil a connection between Pitino and the events that took place, he, the UofL players, fans and business community have all more than paid their due for the transgressions of a few. If he did know, or in any way facilitated or authorized the events that took place, there is no question he should be terminated immediately.
When the scandal first broke, I wrote that Head Coach Rick Pitino would not risk tarnishing his job, Hall of Fame career or millions in future earnings. It would be monsterous to be part of what is alleged. Pitino may have his own checkered past, but he is no monster. That opinion still hold true.
Beyond that, as a head coach, Pitino has an outstanding career record of NCAA compliance and winning by the rules. His rise to prominence at UK in the early ‘90s was in large part due to his success while cleaning up a tarnished program. So why would he take risks in the twilight of his career?
As well, I hope Pitino returns next year so his great career doesn’t end in clouds of scandal and mystery. Not to mention, next year’s team is poised to be the best in the country. The Cardinals are loaded at every position, despite the losses of Lee and Lewis. There will undoubtedly be question marks and growing pains in the beginning of the year (like, “Do we have two starting fives that could win it all?”), but next year’s Cards are loaded. It would be an absolute tragedy for the architect of this team to not give it one more run.