Rick Pitino is human Teflon.
On Saturday, Iona announced that one of the greatest basketball coaches, and dirtiest, was going to lead their program since Tim Cluess was stepping down due to health reasons after 10 seasons. If you’ve heard of Iona before, it’s because this is the time of the year in which the Gaels tend to make a name for themselves. The program has appeared in 14 NCAA Tournaments. Since 2000, Iona has made it nine times, including four consecutive trips between 2016-2019.
There are plenty of talented black coaches that Iona could have easily hired to fill the position, instead, they were lazy and took the easy way out by bringing in a man that is destined to bring drama to their campus in some form or another.
Before this season began, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette broke down the landscape of black coaches in college basketball, and the numbers are pathetic. Only 14 black men led programs at the start of the season (18.7 percent) of the 75 in college basketball’s six major conferences. And if you take away the Big East, the number drops to 13.8 percent.
If you’re wondering why race is being mentioned here, it’s because almost 80 percent of major-conference scholarship basketball players are black. Since 1939, John Thompson (Georgetown - 1984), Nolan Richardson (Arkansas - 1994), Tubby Smith (Kentucky - 1998) and Kevin Ollie (UConn - 2014) are the only black coaches to win national championships.
This isn’t about a lack of talent, it’s about a lack of opportunity. Because if you’re O.K. with one race making up 80 percent of the players, while less than 20 percent of them are running programs, it means you think black people are only good enough to play the game, not coach it.
However, given the history of how college athletic programs love to give excellent white coaches with tarnished legacies unlimited opportunities, at some point you had to figure that Pitino was going to get another job, even if the program he took over would suffer because of it.
“We have no reason to believe that would happen,” said Iona AD Matthew Glovaski when he was asked about the possibility of the NCAA punishing Pitino due to the FBI’s investigation into the sport. “Because we’ve had such a thorough interview process. ... Rick’s values aligned with the goals and values for the college. He was the right leader at the right time in his life for this job.”
Values? When has Rick Pitino ever had values?
According to the school’s website, Iona is “rooted in religious tradition, including the pursuit of and transmission of truth, knowledge and freedom of inquiry.”
Somebody at Iona didn’t do their research. But I did, and below is a list of scandals that Pitino has been involved with, and I struggle to see how they “line up” with Iona’s “values.”
- While as a graduate assistant coach at Hawaii in the 70s, the NCAA found that Pitino was directly responsible for 8 of the 64 violations the program had committed, leading to two years of probation. Pitino bought plane tickets for players, arranged for them to swap season tickets for cars, and gave them coupons for McDonald’s.
- In 2009, Pitino, then the head coach of Louisville, announced that he was being extorted by Karen Sypher, the wife of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher. It was later revealed Pitino committed adultery when he and Karen Sypher had sex on a table at an Italian restaurant that was closed. In court, Pitino said the affair “lasted less than 15 seconds.” At the time of the incident, Sypher was not yet married. Pitino also admitted to paying Sypher to have an abortion.
- Six years later, the Louisville sex scandal happened under Pitino’s watch. It was revealed that on-campus parties were thrown for recruits and players in dorms, in which strippers and prostitutes were paid to “entertain.” Katina Powell, the self-described madam that supplied the “entertainment” wrote a book about the incident. Ultimately, the Cardinals were forced to vacate their 2013 National Championship because of it.
- In 2017, Pitino was tabbed as “Coach-2” in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, as he and former standout Brian Bowen Jr., became the faces of the pay-for-play scandal, which led to his dismissal from Louisville and coaching in college.
The fallout from the FBI’s investigation is worse than anything Pitino had previously been involved with – which is saying something – and is due, in part, to Pitino’s hubris.
“We got lucky on this one. I had an AAU director call me and ask me if I’d be interested in a player. I said, ‘Yeah, I’d be really interested.’ In my 40 years of coaching, this is the luckiest I’ve been.” That’s what Pitino said on the radio about how “lucky” he was to have a McDonald’s All-American like Bowen Jr., fall into his lap, while the only reason it happened is because Adidas paid Bowen’s father $100,000 for his son’s services, which was authorized by Pitino.
This is the same man that once said, “We need to get shoe companies out of their lives,” when discussing recruiting. We would later find out that in 2017, Pitino took home 98% of the money from Louisville’s deal with Adidas. In 2015-16, $1.5 million went to Pitino while only $25,000 actually went to the program.
And after the FBI dropped their bombshell, Pitino had this to say:
“These allegations come as a complete shock to me. If true, I agree with the U.S. Attorney’s Office that these third-party schemes, initiated by a few bad actors, operated to commit a fraud on the impacted universities and their basketball programs, including the University of Louisville. Our fans and supporters deserve better and I am committed to taking whatever steps are needed to ensure those responsible are held accountable.”
Pitino has never fully apologized or admitted guilt to any scandal he’s been a part of, and refuses to believe he’s the common thread in all of them. I guess when you’re a Hall of Famer with a 770-271 career collegiate record, the only coach to ever take three schools to the Final Four (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) and hold the claim of being the only coach to win a Division I men’s national title at two different schools (Kentucky and Louisville), all while being white, it can be easy for some to look past your transgressions.
But at some point, the inevitable is going to happen and I already know how it will end. In a few seasons, Rick Pitino will have turned Iona into arguably the best mid-major program in college basketball. That is until another scandal takes place. And once Iona is done with him, they will hire a black coach to clean up after him and restore the program to the school’s “values.”