So, there I was, sitting in my Louisville Cardinal pajama bottoms this morning when I saw reports that the school was preparing to fire head basketball coach Rick Pitino. Shortly thereafter, that news came to include athletic director Tom Jurich, who was presumably fired because he refused at this point to get rid of Pitino.
Yes, if you read back through my full history around here, you’ll find that I am most certainly a Louisville Cardinal basketball fan. I grew up in the city and on the campus. My dad taught there, and I graduated from there. I was a freshman when we won our first National Championship. I was a massive college basketball fan in the day, and, though my interest in the sport has waned as the game has become a grind-it out, 40-minute scrum, the Cardinals are still a good enough reason to watch the sport.
LET’S START WITH THE 411
For those without the background, the basics are that an FBI investigation across the whole of college basketball has identified problems. Several assistant coaches across the country have been arrested for taking cash to funnel college players to various sports agents, but the pertinent item in Louisville’s case is that officials from Adidas, Louisville’s apparel partner, allegedly worked with a Louisville assistant coach to pay a highly touted recruit $100K to come to the school. The whole thing is happening pretty quickly, and my guess on Jurich’s firing is that it happened because he refused to fire Pitino before seeing how Pitino was actually involved.
To make this whole thing even more interesting, the revelation occurred after two major events in Louisville sports history, the first being the school’s recruiting sex scandal (which Pitino was essentially absolved of, and which was slowly losing its power), and the second was the fact that earlier this year Louisville’s athletic department signed a record apparel deal with Adidas, which has put them onto the map as the top Adidas school in the country. Since that time, the school has been prominently displayed on pretty much all Adidas commercials.
The cherry on top is that (I’m pretty sure on this timing, but admit I could be wrong) a month or two later the recruit in question came to Louisville, essentially falling out of the sky and into Pitino’s lap. “We spent zero dollars recruiting a 5-star athlete who I loved when I saw him play. In my 40 years of coaching, this is the luckiest I’ve ever been,” Pitino said at one point.
MY THINKING HERE: PITINO
You can like Rick Pitino or not, but there can be no debate about the fact that on the court itself he is a great basketball coach. Not a good coach: A great coach. He gets as much from his players as anyone I’ve ever watched, and if you give him three days to prepare he’s almost impossible to beat.
So, let me start by saying that, as a Louisville fan, this just sucks balls.
I mean. Sigh.
At the end of the day, this has nothing to do with what happens on a basketball court and everything to do with what happens around a program. Regardless of whether Pitino knew about this one or not, the school looks clearly guilty of a major NCAA infraction, and I’m no lawyer, but likely a criminal action. The FBI doesn’t jack around with simple NCAA stuff, you know?
Whoever the assistant coach was in this case was working directly with a school’s business partner to pay a player, and the school directly benefitted. There’s really no getting past that.
If Pitino knew about it directly, that’s “worse,” but it’s bad for him even if he didn’t know directly about it, because shit-fire, man, when a five-star recruit falls out of the sky for zero-freaking dollars, no self-respecting head coach in this day and age can just nod his head and go along—especially one who’s already scared up by scandal, and who has spent years discussing how there are too many runners and agents and apparel companies throwing money around as Rick Pitino has. A five-star recruit falls into your lap for free, and you’ve got to step back and ask some questions. Nothing I’ve seen so far supports Pitino in this case.
So, yeah. It’s bad.
And it’s a shame.
MY THINKING HERE: THE SCHOOL/ENVIRONMENT
I feel disjointed to have Louisville in this crap. It’s hard to see it happen here, but I’ve got enough distance to not be as distraught as I once might have been. Louisville (and four more schools so far) are caught up in some deep problems. Pitino’s may or may not be directly of his own making, but I don’t think it’s really that surgical. I think this is how college sports works today. It’s how money works. To a degree, it’s how it’s always worked but now the cash is so big that it’s worth the Feds time to get into it.
Think of it this way, too: The mere amount of the money going to the kid tells you what these players are actually worth on the market. A hundred grand is a decent chunk of change, after all. And the fact that Adidas was willing to pay it says that the kid is worth considerably more than that. Adidas is a company, after all. It’s making money off that investment.
In that light, keep in mind that these things are not one-sided. The most likely situation (in any case where a kid is getting paid) is that the kid, or his family, asked for money and Adidas gave it to him, asking in return “only” that the kid go to the company’s top school. In a capitalistic free market situation, this would just be…well…normal. But NCAA sports are not free markets, at least not where the labor is concerned, and the NCAA is working hard to keep it that way. Despite this, the kids know who the draw is. They know who is making these schools their billions. They know that top-end kids are getting shafted, so it’s not overly surprising that they, or their families, are asking for compensation. Quite honestly, they deserve it.
And then there are the apparel companies and other big-dollar advertisers themselves. Quite honestly, anyone who thinks these companies are dropping that kind of cash on schools, and not working the system to leverage that cash are living in a fantasy deeper than Westworld.
It’s going to be interesting to me to see where this goes in the end. It will be interesting to see what Pitino and Jurich do after the dust settles a little. I assume Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich know the full ins and outs of the game above the game. Pitino has been somewhat campaigning for various changes and controls in the past, and Jurich had been a magician in the AD’s seat. I can come up with lots of interesting scenarios surrounding both of them.
MY THINKING HERE: THE END GAME
But none of those things matter today. All that’s relevant now is that a representative of the school worked to get a kid paid.
So it’s a dark day for Louisville.
It makes me wonder if the school will even have a program in the future. It makes me wonder if college sports as a whole will ever come out of the fake umbrella of amateurism that it’s pretending to play under. In a way, this is a little microcosm of America in that, while a few big institutions keep getting richer and richer as the common guy shells out their $100 for a jersey with Lamar Jackson’s number on it, everyone keeps pretending and pretending that these kids are getting a fair shake or that the game isn’t being twisted by big money guys.
I mean, come on, right? We know it is, but (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) it isn’t really.
In this way, college sports had already become hollow for me, the seams were showing.
I hope, for other fans of other schools, that this is just a Louisville thing. I hope that because today’s news is annoying to me. It’s hard news because it breaks the façade and makes it impossible to pretend anymore. College sports are there to be fun, and you cheer for your guys because (like American exceptionalism itself), following a team lets you put on your personal layer of fake superiority while your guys play—your team is better than the other guys, regardless of the outcome because … sports!
So, OF COURSE, kids come to your school because they want to come to the best, and they go to your rival’s schools only because the scum bucket coaches of the other schools shell out cash they’ve laundered through the school’s programs somehow.
But something like this changes that whole fake game we let ourselves play. Something like this just says money talks, which we all know, but which we all want to pretend isn’t true.
So, yeah. I hope this is just about Louisville. I even hope it was just about a renegade of an assistant doing something atrociously bad. I hope this is true for you and for you and you, too, the big guy in the blue shirt back there in the corner. For the sake of fans of college sports everywhere, I hope it’s just Louisville (and four other assistants at other schools).
But, to be honest, that’s not what I’m expecting to discover.