Say what you will about Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, but one undeniable fact remains true about him: He’s a survivor.
Sure, no one will blame you for not feeling sorry for Pitino since the latest transgression under his watch reportedly involved a madame being hired to bring in exotic dancers to “entertain” recruits. He said he had no knowledge about that episode and all the activities contained within it.
Still, that type of tawdry and unsavory behavior under his watch has made Pitino a public enemy to not only the NCAA, but to many in the viewing public.
Nonetheless — and to paraphrase Chumbawamba — when Pitino gets knocked down, he gets up again. You are never gonna keep him down.
Recently, Pitino stated that he believes the self-imposed penalties that prevented the Cardinals from playing in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments last season represented sufficient punishment. The school’s investigation found — based on Katina Powell’s (the reported escort’s) allegations — that violations did in fact take place.
The school also imposed additional sanctions in the spring, reducing scholarships, recruiting visits, and contacts by staff for the next two seasons.
Pitino said that lead investigator Chuck Smrt’s conclusions (that name is correct — no typo) should suffice for the NCAA despite ongoing investigations.
Here’s more from Pitino via the Associated Press (h/t ESPN):
“Chuck tells you, ‘OK, this is what I find you guilty of and this is what we must do,’ so he was the guy that told us what to do. It wasn’t the school,” Pitino said during a radio interview Tuesday on Louisville’s 840 WHAS.
“We have to rely on his (Smrt’s) expertise, so in his expertise and his feelings, we’ve done everything that we needed to do.”
Going on the assumption that Louisville will be eligible to play in next year’s NCAA Tournament, the Cardinals will enter have high aspirations and can contend for an ACC title.
While Louisville loses its top three scorers — Damion Lee (15.9 points per game), Trey Lewis (11.3 points per game) and Chinanu Onuaku (9.9 points and a team-leading 8.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game) — Pitino and company still have a squad that will likely take up space in preseason top-25 rankings.
Back are Quentin Snider (9.4 points and a team-leading 3.5 assists per game) and Donovan Mitchell (7.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per game). Together they should make an excellent backcourt. Add McDonald’s All-American V.J. King at the wing, and Pitino has a solid core of scorers and playmakers to lean on.
Pitino also has some solid frontcourt weapons in Ray Spalding and Mangok Mathiang. Both offer a good deal of upside in the paint, especially Mathiang.
The cupboard is definitely not bare in Louisville. That’s for sure.
For Pitino and the Cardinals, still, it’s all about optics.
The stigma of this current sex scandal, in addition to Pitino having overcome his own sex scandal, in which infidelity and paying for an abortion were at the crux of the incident, casts a shadow over Pitino’s career.
By now, though, it’s established that scandals don’t ruffle Pitino. People don’t refer to him as “Teflon Don” for nothing.
Pitino has the innate ability to block out all the noise and get his team to focus on the task at hand. While you may not like him, or while you still question his integrity, his ability to push aside distractions and get the best out of his team is impossible to ignore.
No one can play the media game better than Pitino. He deflects and ducks media pressure like an all-star dodgeball player.
Even with all the black clouds swirling above the team last season, the Cardinals still reeled off 23 wins, while finishing fourth in the ACC. Louisville did this despite losing Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear, Anton Gill and Chris Jones from the Elite Eight team of 2015.
Pitino doesn’t just face adversity, he defies it.
This is a coach who went from Kentucky to Louisville—albeit interrupted by the NBA and the Boston Celtics—with aplomb. Pitino also lost his brother-in-law and best friend Billy Minardi in the 9/11 terror attacks.
Pitino knows how to get off the mat and pick himself back up, and while some say the most recent wounds are self-inflicted, his perseverance still demonstrates a characteristic that few coaches possess — certainly to such a degree.
While the expectations are heightened for Pitino entering this season, don’t expect him to get rattled by any whirlwinds of controversy. In many ways, he thrives in these situations.
Yes, the latest infractions are serious and cannot be swept under the rug, but if the Cards are deemed clean from here on out, they deserve the benefit of the doubt.
You can poke fun at Pitino all you want, but he is the one who will ultimately have the last laugh.