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Pitino may not be the bad guy, but deserves punishment

February 1, 2016: Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino looks on during the game against The Louisville Cardinals and North Carolina Tar Heels at The KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, KY. Louisville defeated North Carolina 71-65. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire).
Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire

If this ends up being the event that drives Rick Pitino into retirement from coaching basketball, maybe there’s a future for him in politics.

Pitino is obviously a strong leader, capable of taking an organization to the height of success. He also has a way of making it difficult not to like him, no matter the scandal he finds himself attached to.

Oh, Kentucky fans may have some mixed emotions about the man who won a national title for Big Blue, then did the same with their most hated rival, but let’s be honest: No matter what shady business may have gone on at either Kentucky or Louisville, Pitino’s name isn’t at the top of many most-hated lists.

His teams always play hard and are fun. He seems to genuinely care about his players. Compared to many of his ACC rivals, he’s immensely likable. He’s gracious and complimentary to opposing teams. He doesn’t bully refs and media like Coach K, whine like Jim Boeheim or talk about himself in the third person like Ol’ Roy Williams.

If you can just ignore the reasons Pitino and Louisville were in the news Thursday, he’s almost impossible to knock.

Apparently ignoring the Cardinals’ sex scandal is easy to do, because at best that’s exactly what Pitino himself did. Pitino, who may wind up suspended or worse, can say he didn’t know a former assistant was arranging parties with prostitutes for players and recruits. He probably didn’t know.

But it’s his job to know. He gets paid millions to know, and if there’s anything going on within a college basketball program the head coach doesn’t know, it’s because his underlings know the boss doesn’t want to know.

In other words, it’s a lot like politics.

Simply running afoul of the NCAA doesn’t suddenly turn a likable coach into a villain. The NCAA has been inconsistently enforcing its incomprehensible rule book for so long, the judgments can seem meaningless. When programs have been hammered for too much pizza in film sessions, but imaginary courses are no big deal, what do they expect?

However, the Louisville situation isn’t just a NCAA issue. It gets right to the heart of what a college coach is supposed to be, and what nearly all of them claim to be when they sit in a recruit’s living room.

Parents know their kids could run into trouble any time they leave the house, but when they send their teenage sons to check out a college, they trust the people in positions of authority aren’t knowingly putting the kids in illegal and potentially dangerous situations.

Pitino can say he trusted the wrong person, but it was still his job to know. That’s why no matter how likable he is, it’s also impossible to feel bad for him with a possible suspension or show cause looming.

It’s sad if this winds up defining the end of a legendary career. When the day comes, NCAA violations won’t be in the first paragraph of Roy Williams or Jim Boeheim’s obituaries. Pitino might not be able to say the same.

He has nobody to blame but himself.

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