In the eyes of the NCAA, the most important question that needs to be answered in the Louisville basketball scandal is “Did Rick Pitino know” that his staffers were funneling money to a madame to provide escorts for players and recruits. This will determine the extent of the sanctions to be handed down by the NCAA, which could ultimately include vacating a National Championship, but will likely be geared more towards recruiting restrictions and possible scholarship reductions for the basketball program. This is completely out of Louisville’s control, but the decision that currently sits on the desk of Athletics Director Tom Jurich is what to do with Rick Pitino.
Louisville has been without a doubt the fastest riser in college athletics over the past decade under Jurich’s leadership. During the Jurich era, Louisville was able to navigate the dismantling of the Big East and earn their way back into the power conferences with an invitation to join the ACC in November of 2012. Following the vote to extend the offer, ACC Commissioner John Swofford said of Louisville, “When you look at Louisville, you see a university and an athletic program that has all the arrows pointed up — a tremendous uptick there, tremendous energy. It’s always an overall fit in every respect and I think that’s what we found.”
Pitino seemed a perfect fit as well. He didn’t just insert himself into the ACC coaching ranks, he nearly instantaneously left his mark by winning a national championship just four months after the league’s invitation. While other ACC coaches have been clearly out of place standing next to giants like Krzyzewski, Williams, Boeheim and Mark Gottfried, Pitino walked in the door on his first day as their peer, and like those other greats, he seemed like he’d be set to end his career on his own terms. Until now.
Whether or not Pitino knew the goings on of those parties, they happened on his watch. Without getting into discussions of morals or values, it’s not up for debate that trust was placed in Pitino and his staff to take care of their players and recruits, and whether or not they knowingly put them in these situations, it was their responsibility to keep them out, and they failed. What we know of Tom Jurich from afar, he understands the role that Louisville’s reputation played in earning that invitation from the ACC, and there’s simply no way as the architect of that reputation that he’ll allow it to crumble. If we know Tom Jurich like we think we do, Pitino will not survive this scandal. And if we know Tom Jurich, he’ll turn to Rick Pitino to replace Rick Pitino.
“If it was the same Bobby that was here 10 years [ago], I wasn’t interested. He is definitely a changed person,” Jurich said on the day Bobby Petrino was hired as the Louisville head football coach for the second time. It would have been completely understandable for Louisville to pass on Petrino when Charlie Strong left for Texas. After all, Petrino once secretly interviewed for a head coaching position at Auburn that wasn’t even available while he was coaching the Cardinals. He ultimately left Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons, where he decided to sneak out on his team in early December with a short resignation letter laminated and placed in each player’s locker. And, of course, Petrino is most known for an affair with an Arkansas staff member who received cash gifts and preferential treatment during her hiring process that led to his dismissal in April of 2012, a year and a half before returning to Louisville as a changed man.
We’d expect the same benefit of the doubt for Pitino, because people can change. And who better to rebuild the reputation of the Louisville basketball program than the man who took them to the top of the game three seasons ago?