I was traveling most of the day Wednesday so I only heard snippets of the Rick Pitino story throughout the day. Some of the details made me wince. Others were just, well, shocking--if in fact they are true. None of us has the right to sit in moral judgment of others but it just strikes me as downright STUPID--especially as a major celebrity to end up having sex with someone you just met on the table of a restaurant. What's remarkable is that such a story stayed secret this long.
Hearing the lurid details, I thought about a number of things, one a line I heard years ago from a prominent basketball coach who was describing some of his own escapades. "The problem with drinking," he said, "is that it makes you think you’re invisible."
I also remembered another coach who often explained to other coaches that his policy was to walk into a bar and look for the most unattractive woman he could find. His logic was simple: “It’s easier that way."
Look, it's sad but true that basketball coaches, like men--and, let's face it women (this woman in the Pitino story sounds like a real charmer)--do things like this every day. That's not a defense of Pitino, I'm not a believer in the, "everybody does it so it's okay," defense but we all know people who do things late at night and then wake up the next morning saying, "Oh My God, what have I done?" That doesn't mean, however, that they don't do it again.
We all know divorce is the American Way. I speak first hand. On the PGA Tour, divorce is so frequent that second wives are called, "mulligans."
This, however, is the kind of story that is going to be hard to escape.
Whether Pitino can survive this is hard to say. One thing is for sure: if he was just an average coach or a good coach, he'd be gone this morning. But he's a Hall of Fame coach who won 31 games last year and has taken three different schools to five Final Fours and won a national championship at Kentucky in 1996. That means Louisville isn't going to be eager to get rid of him. Winners are frequently far less guilty than non-winners. Already I have read one column this morning saying that this shouldn't hurt Pitino's recruiting. I'm not sure what's worse, the fact that the question is raised or that it's going to be an important factor in whether he survives.
My own experiences with Pitino have been all over the map. I first met him when he was coaching at Boston University and, like everyone in basketball, knew this was a coach on his way up. I remember his run to The Final Four at Providence which, tragically, coincided with the death of his infant son. We fell out--big time--when he was at Kentucky. I've never been a big fan of Kentucky basketball as an entity because I don't like the idea of, "basketball as religion," the way it is embraced there.
That wasn't what really turned me on Pitino. It was an incident in 1994 when, after a second round loss to Marquette in the NCAA Tournament--a game in which Rick stubbornly refused to back off his press against a point guard who was shredding it--he sat next to his three seniors at the postgame press conference and said of a team that had won 28 games, "this Kentucky team lacked leadership, chemistry and drive."
In other words, "I coached good--they played bad."
I can't stand coaches who do that and I wrote that and said that even as Rick did a stunning job the next few years at Kentucky. Still, I was pretty tough on him. After North Carolina beat Kentucky in the 1995 regional final I wrote, "The numbers for Rick Pitino remain the same: two autobiographies, no championships."
Accurate, but pretty mean.
A year later when Kentucky won the title, someone sent me a Pitino interview in a Kentucky basketball magazine in which he was breathlessly asked if he was going to write another book. "I said I wasn't going to write one until we won a title," he answered. "Because I wasn't going to give guys like John Feinstein the chance to rip me again. Now, I'm going to write one."
I dropped him a note saying, "NOW you should write one." You'll be shocked to learn he didn't write back.
Then he went to the Celtics and demanded the title of team president even though Red Auerbach had been team president forever. Red had no intention of interfering with Rick--he was retired by then and was there as a sounding board for anyone who came to him, but he wasn't going to tell anyone in Boston what to do--but Rick had to have the title. Needless to say I came down hard on him for that and his subsequent failures with the Celtics.
It was Ralph Willard who played peacemaker between us. I got to know Ralph well while researching, "The Last Amateurs," in '1999-2000. He had come to Holy Cross after coaching at Western Kentucky and Pittsburgh but was close to Rick--they are both from Long Island and Ralph worked with Rick in New York and then for him at Kentucky.
"You guys don't get along because you're exactly alike," Ralph told me. "You're both ball-busters."
One afternoon during a summer camp Ralph was sitting with Rick and waved me over to sit with them. I did, for about an hour. Pitino was at Louisville by then. He was willing to let bygones be bygones--I'd certainly ripped him a hell of a lot more than he'd ripped me--and we went from there. He even came and played in 'The Bruce Edwards Celebrity Pro-Am,' a couple years ago, which was a really nice thing for him to do.
Let me say this: I'd have felt badly about this if we HADN'T smoked the peace pipe. This is a sad state of affairs for a great coach who I know has impacted a lot of people's lives in a positive way. Of course what's really sad is that his future won't ultimately be decided by adding up how much good he's done, how much charity work he's been involved with (a LOT) or any testimonials from coaches or past players about his character.
It will be decided by whether the school thinks he can still win basketball games. That doesn't make Louisville any different from anyone else in Division 1 basketball.
And that really IS a shame.