Add Event My Events Log In

Upcoming Events

    Deep Reads

    Print this page

    This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, click here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    By Joe DePaolo

     

    “It turns my stomach. And I’ve said it 100 times — I don’t want to keep beating this — but I don’t know why they did it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It makes no sense. And everybody who was involved hurt a lot of good people…And innocent people now will pay the price.” — University of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino at a press conference addressing the university’s self-imposed one-year ban from postseason play.

     

    Dear Coach Pitino,

     

    When I was seven years old and basketball meant the world to me, I discovered Born to Coach, the book you wrote chronicling your first season leading an NBA team. Over the course of 11 chapters you told the story of the 1987-’88 New York Knicks — and became my idol. I loved Born to Coach so much that after I finished it, I re-read the entire thing aloud to my mom.

    Sitting together at our dining room table, I read Mom a chapter every night after dinner. I did my best to skip the swear words. It wasn’t easy. (“When I am fucking talking, you better be fucking listening!” you screamed at one of your more indifferent players.) I imagine the nuns at your old high school, St. Dominic’s in Oyster Bay on Long Island — about 10 miles east of my childhood home in Little Neck — would have been none too pleased by your language. Me? I was about to make Holy Communion. The F-word was off-limits. But when I got to the part when Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale jokingly made a request of you on behalf of his teammate Danny Ainge, I thought he was just using some basketball jargon.

    “Hey, Rick,” I read to Mom, repeating McHale’s words, “will you stop breaking Danny’s balls?” Mom couldn’t stop laughing.

    An NBA rookie head coach at 35, you took my beloved hometown team, which couldn’t get out of its own way a year earlier, and molded a squad that qualified for the playoffs and a meeting with the vaunted Boston Celtics. Larry Bird walked through that door. Robert Parish walked through that door. McHale walked through that door. And yet your ragtag bunch — a young Patrick Ewing and not a whole lot more — went four games in a best-of-five series.

    How did you and your guys do it? You wrote extensively about your maniacal practices. You once forced your team to line up, drive to the basket and make a combined 85 layups with their off hand…in two minutes. They were winded, but when they fell just one short, you made them do it again. You wouldn’t settle for anything less than completion of the task. You demanded constant energy. Constant pressure. But dammit, they believed in you.

    By the spring of 1992, when I read Born to Coach for the first time, you had recently suffered one of the most heartbreaking defeats in the history of sports. You and your Kentucky Wildcats versus the Duke Blue Devils in the NCAA tournament’s East Regional Final. “There’s the pass to Laettner,” CBS announcer Verne Lundquist said innocently as Duke’s Grant Hill fired a 75-foot inbounds pass down the court and into Christian Laettner’s waiting hands. With 2.1 seconds to go, Laettner — back to the basket — took a quick dribble, turned around and launched the shot that changed his life. “Puts it up…YESSSSSS!” The crowd exploded. The players on Duke’s bench stormed the court. You could hardly even make eye contact with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski as you shook hands and promptly walked off. 

    But that was a temporary setback. It wouldn’t be long before you took the Wildcats all the way, winning a national championship in 1996. Then it was on to the Celtics. You took over as head coach of the Cardinals in 2001. Won the title in 2013. Even got a back tattoo to commemorate that one.

    You’re one of only 20 coaches in college basketball history to have eclipsed the 700-win mark. That gaudy total helped earn you induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.

    So things haven’t been going well for you lately. The ongoing recent scandal is just the latest in a series of personal and professional incidents. There was that ill-fated four-year turn as the Celtics’ head coach. And then there was Karen Sypher. The details of your evening with her at Porcini in 2003 first became public in 2009. At her criminal trial in 2010 (she was found guilty of extortion and sentenced to seven years in prison), you were questioned under oath by Sypher’s attorney. You were forced to describe the encounter in excruciating detail, saying it began with her rubbing your leg as you were sitting at the restaurant bar, then her suggesting that you go to a booth. “One thing led to another,” you said. Nasty. According to your account in another of your books, The One-Day Contract, you wanted to take the attorney “outside and whip his ass.”

    As you continued to deal with that extramarital ordeal, another sordid chapter of your Louisville tenure was unfolding, this the most damning of all. As everyone in town knows by now, former graduate assistant and director of basketball operations Andre McGee allegedly paid a self-described madam named Katina Powell and other escorts to dance for and have sex with U of L players and recruits from 2010-’14. ESPN had five ex-Louisville players and recruits confirm that these parties took place at Billy Minardi Hall, the on-campus dorm named for your late brother-in-law that houses the basketball team. One player was quoted as saying, “A bunch of us were sitting there while they danced. Then the players left, and the recruits chose which one (of the dancers) they wanted.”

    Since the story broke last year, no one at the university has ever spelled out which of the allegations have proved to be true. Clearly at least some of them are, as the school took the drastic step of banning itself from the postseason this year. “Based upon the available information gathered by the NCAA enforcement staff and the University of Louisville, I determined that it was reasonable to conclude violations had occurred in the men’s basketball program in the past,” U of L president James Ramsey said at the Feb. 5 press conference announcing the ban. This vague response was the only explanation the school gave for pulling the plug on a season in which your team was poised to make a serious run in the tournament. You were 18-4 at the time of the announcement and had just defeated No. 2 North Carolina. Yet the school proceeded with the self-imposed sanctions, hoping that would coagulate the bleeding.

    WDRB’s Rick Bozich has called for your resignation. “Louisville basketball has never faced a mess like this mess,” Bozich wrote. “It’s not a mess that Pitino can fix.” Tim Sullivan of the Courier-Journal also wrote that you should step down. Ramsey did give you a vote of confidence at the Feb. 5 press conference. But back in October, your name was conspicuously absent from Ramsey’s initial statement after the scandal broke: “For the past 18 years, Tom Jurich has served as athletic director of an exemplary program at U of L. I fully support Tom as we work to identify the facts in this situation, and that is what we are doing. Tom and I are committed to the values that are fundamental to the success of Cardinal athletics.”

    Despite the public pressure, and the inconsistent support from Ramsey, you’re still employed by the school — to the amazement of many. You remember Peter Vecsey, coach? He was the longtime NBA columnist for the New York Post and spent 12 years as a cornerstone of NBC’s NBA coverage. A Basketball Hall of Fame honoree in his own right, Vecsey followed you during your days with the Knicks in the late ’80s and was one of your more prominent supporters. He lobbied unsuccessfully to be your general manager with the Celtics. Having retired in 2012, he’s been keeping an eye on what’s been happening at Louisville.

    “It’s amazing that the university will turn the other way when this guy wins games,” Vecsey told me. “They just turn the other way until the NCAA cracks down.”

     

     

    With all this heat, I was curious to see for myself how you were handling it. I got my first chance on Dec. 26 in Lexington, with the big rivalry game at Rupp Arena against the Wildcats. The postseason ban hadn’t yet been announced and, on the court at least, things seemed to be going well. The team was 11-1 entering the contest, the lone defeat coming on the road against then-No. 1 Michigan State. The 11 wins, though, largely came against doormats. It was hard to get a true read. The game against UK would serve as a good barometer.

    As for you personally, all seemed normal in the pregame. The mostly blue-clad Rupp crowd heartily booed you during the introductions, but that was to be expected. You spent eight terrific seasons in Lexington, but what had you done for them lately? Your nemesis, UK coach John Calipari, is now the man around these parts.

    You made your way up and down the bench just before tipoff, gave all of your players a fist bump. It had been awhile since I’d seen you coach in person. I’d forgotten what a lunatic you are on the sidelines. A ball of nervous energy. You paced, and you paced, and you paced. If someone attached an odometer, it would’ve undoubtedly shown you racking up enough mileage during the two-hour contest to make it all the way back home.

    UK took an eight-point lead into the locker room at half and appeared to be on the verge of putting the game away early in the second, stretching the margin to 16. But your team fought back, cutting the deficit to six with 6:28 remaining.

    You’d been going at it with the officials all game, to the point that your constant bickering drew a technical foul in the first half. But here you were during a timeout, yukking it up with one of the refs.

    Handsome and charming have always been two of the first adjectives employed in so many published descriptions of you. Once upon a time, your suave look — perfectly coiffed hair, Brioni suit — made you a natural fit for the Goodfellas movie poster. Now, at 63, with your jowl lines growing ever more prominent, those days are gone. Damn, coach, I thought you’d look 30 forever. Instead, you look like a second-term president. And you displayed little charm in the huddle with your team during the second half. A couple of times your eyes turned blood-red and a mile wide. I couldn’t hear your screaming from my perch in the upper deck, but your voice carried quite a bit downstairs. The only reason you belong on the Goodfellas poster these days is for a demeanor that evokes thoughts of Tommy DeVito, the deranged hitman memorably portrayed by Joe Pesci.

    I suppose I shouldn’t blame you for getting emotional. You wanted this one badly. Understandably so. You’ve had little success against Calipari, besting him only once in eight tries prior to the Dec. 26 contest. He’s made the Final Four in four of the past five years, and he led the Wildcats to a national championship in 2012. And he’s having all this success a little more than an hour’s drive away. His accomplishments have begun to overshadow yours.

    Fifth-year transfer guard Damion Lee hit a three-pointer with 5:31 remaining to bring Louisville within one. But that’s as close as your team would get. You had a chance to win with a three-pointer at the buzzer, but Lee threw up an airball from the corner, to the cheers of the 24,412 on hand at Rupp. Wildcats 75, Cardinals 73.

    The postgame handshakes were quick. You left in a hurry. I was seated upstairs behind the Kentucky bench, nowhere near the tunnel where you made your exit. Did you give the middle finger to the fans? Many people thought so. You denied it, in a text message to ESPN.com. A video surfaced. I replayed it over and over like it was the damned Zapruder film and still couldn’t tell. Whatever. Only you know.

    You surrendered a chance to defend yourself by skipping out on the postgame media session. Six days later, on New Year’s Day, you held a press conference. “When we go into a press conference in a neighborhood like that, I don’t want to hear about the scandal, OK? I don’t want to hear about that. That has bothered me every single night,” you said. What you said five minutes later, at the very same press conference, seemed to be a contradiction of Trump-ian proportions. “I’m too old. I don’t care, OK?” you said. “There’s only one good thing about being 63, is you don’t care what people think anymore.” (Pitino declined Louisville Magazine’s multiple interview requests. “While he appreciates the opportunity,” U of L sports information director Kenny Klein wrote in an email, “he said at this stage of his life he’s not looking for any personal attention.”)

    Your freewheeling, undisciplined speaking style concerns some of your school’s faculty. Luke Milligan, a Louisville law professor, worries that an off-the-cuff remark could have unintended legal consequences for the school. “He’s the most high-profile university employee, he’s in front of the press all the time, he doesn’t know where all the university’s legal pitfalls lie, and he’s an uninhibited public speaker,” Milligan told me. “No matter how many times you instruct him to say ‘no comment,’ he’s eventually going to get carried away and slip up.”

    You’re the most high-profile employee at the university, and at nearly $4.5 million dollars this year, you’re the highest paid. “Now, he’s the man,” Vecsey says. “He figures he can do whatever he wants.”

    I felt sorry for you while watching the video of that New Year’s Day press conference. That wasn’t the Rick Pitino of my youth. That wasn’t the no-nonsense ass-kicker I grew up admiring. That was a babbling, petty excuse-maker. What would you have said if one of your players came to you with such weak excuses for skipping out on an obligation?

    What happened to you, coach? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the past.

     

     

    Come with me back to New York and a time when the world made a little more sense for you. We’re outside Madison Square Garden. Mecca of basketball. A lot of people were initially skeptical of your hiring as Knicks coach. You had the reputation of being a cheerleader of sorts. There were questions as to whether your motivational tactics and high-energy style would work in the NBA. It’s one thing to wave the pom-poms for college kids. It’s another to do it for jaded millionaires.

    You were a college guy, yes, but an accomplished one. You’d gotten the Knicks job on the strength of your work at Boston University and then Providence College in the ’80s. You spent four seasons at BU, earning an NCAA tournament berth in 1983. After two years here in New York as an assistant coach with the Knicks, it was on to Providence, where your Friars made an improbable run to the Final Four in your second and last season. You were truly a madman back then, according to many of your players. Glenn Consor — who played two seasons for you at BU and is now a broadcaster for the Washington Wizards radio network — recalled your intense nature in Born to Coach: “There were definitely times when you thought he was crazy. There were times when you didn’t want to do it anymore.”

    Consor told me a story of one particularly grueling task called the “minute on the brick drill” that he and his teammates were forced to perform if they made a mistake during practice. They went into the lane in a defensive stance balancing a brick on each palm, then slid back and forth from one end of the paint to the other as many as 20 times in a minute. “If you stood up, or dropped the bricks, you had to do it all over again,” Consor says. “It was a killer. Your legs were humming.”

    But like so many of your ex-players, Consor speaks of you in the highest possible terms: “I left BU knowing I became the best player I could’ve been...and it was all because of Rick Pitino.”

    The brick drill was a non-starter at the NBA level. It was the kind of thing that needed to be tweaked if it was to work with the Knicks. But you did. And you got the team’s core guys to subscribe to what you were doing. The general premise — that a coach could motivate through positivity — worked during your time in New York.

    You ended up having two good seasons here at the Garden. Following that first-round loss to the Celts in ’88, you won a playoff round the next year, then lost in six games to Michael Jordan and the Bulls. You bolted for Kentucky after the season. But your tenure with the Knicks was a success.

     

     

    Let’s go to the Upper East Side — 63rd Street between Second and Third avenues — the site of Bravo Gianni’s, one of your old favorite New York haunts. It’s closed now, I’m sorry to say. Been almost five years since the owner and chef, Gianni Garavelli, had a stroke and the restaurant was shut down.

    In its place is what looks to be a luxury apartment building. I didn’t get the best view of it. The doorman gave me the evil eye as I tried to peer inside. But it seems very posh. The block, in fact, consists almost entirely of apartment buildings and a parking garage. As New York streets go, this one’s a bit lacking in character. The closing of Bravo Gianni’s couldn’t have helped in this regard.

    Yeah, the world’s changing, coach. Sad, ain’t it? I know you’re something of a traditionalist. You’re not a fan of certain things that might be considered progress. You devoted an entire chapter in The One-Day Contract to the dangers of technology. Twitter, in particular, rankles you. As part of a rant against Twitter in the book, you referenced some of the great coaches of yesterday and today and asked hypothetically if they’d have ever succumbed to the time-sucking medium. “Would John Wooden have been on Twitter? I don’t think so. Vince Lombardi? No way. The greatest modern-day basketball coach is Mike Krzyzewski. He does not do Twitter,” you wrote.

    You clearly hold these heralded coaches in high regard. But there’s one legend who you showed massive disrespect — Red Auerbach. The then 79-year-old Auerbach held the title of president of the Celtics when you were named head coach in May 1997. The title was largely ceremonial. He had no real duties with the organization. For some reason, you fought to be given Auerbach’s title. No one doubted that you were going to call the shots. In addition to being hired as the coach, you were also named general manager. But that wasn’t enough. So you were made the president, and Auerbach — the nine-time NBA champion coach — was demoted to executive vice president.

    In 2013, one Boston sports commentator wrote, “Other than megalomania, why would Pitino treat Auerbach — at the time 80 years old and years removed from any day-to-day role with the Celtics — like a fourth-class citizen? What is there to gain, exactly? He had a resource without peer, absurd institutional memory at his fingertips, and he kicked it away out of jealousy. No other explanation.”

    Your Celtics tenure got off to a bad start. You had two high selections in the NBA draft lottery. You ended up with the third and sixth picks, meaning you missed out on Tim Duncan, who went first and would go on to be an all-time great. Your overall record with the Celtics was 102-146. Thirty-four games into your fourth season, you decided to walk away from the club.

    Remember the night before you quit? You recalled the story in Rebound Rules.

    You and your assistant, Jim O’Brien, were sitting by the pool of your South Florida vacation home, drinking beer. You told O’Brien that you were quitting. He looked around, took in the posh setting and observed that there were worse things than drinking a beer poolside in the moonlight.

    “It’s not a bad life,” O’Brien said.

    I’m thinking about that, standing here in front of what used to be Bravo Gianni’s. Gianni Garavelli is gone. He died in 2014. Your peers are getting old. Jim Calhoun, John Thompson and Bobby Knight have all retired from coaching. Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams don’t figure to stay in the game too much longer. Soon, maybe sooner than you want, you too will say goodbye to basketball. Are you capable of moving on?

     

     

    One more stop before we go back to Louisville — our toughest, but our most important. The Freedom Tower. Have you seen it yet? Took ’em forever to build it, but they did a nice job. It’s a worthy tribute to the men and women who died here on our country’s darkest day.

    In addition to the tower, there’s a museum that houses a number of artifacts and tributes to the victims. Flanking the museum are two reflecting pools, each nearly an acre in size, the largest manmade waterfalls on the continent. Etched in marble around each of the pools are the names of those who perished.

    Billy Minardi, your wife’s brother, was on the 105th floor of the North Tower when the first plane hit at 8:46 that Tuesday morning. He worked for the financial-services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, whose offices occupied floors 101 to 105 of the building, above the area of impact. Improbably, there was hope. According to a report by Pat Forde for ESPN.com, a website initially listed Minardi as having survived the attacks. But the list was erroneous. Billy Minardi was dead.

    “For anyone who has ever experienced that moment, you know that you are never the same person again, as long as you live,” you wrote in The One-Day Contract.

    I’m looking for his name at the North Reflecting Pool. Looking, looking, looking. So many names here. Too many. Way too many. Here it is: William George Minardi, etched in the marble near a corner of the pool.

    He seemed like a good guy, coach. He seemed like a guy — maybe the only guy — who could talk straight with you. In the mid-’90s, when you received an offer to coach the New Jersey Nets, Minardi was so strongly against it that he actually ripped up the contract. He was looking out for your best interests. The Nets were a dumpster fire.

    Leaving aside the tawdry events alleged to have occurred at the dorm that bears his name, it is clear that you’ve tried to honor your best friend. In terms of getting things named after him and supporting his widow and three children. In addition to those now-infamous dorms, there is the annual Billy Minardi Classic, played just before Christmas. More important than the symbolic gestures, of course, are the tangible things you’ve done to help his family. Shortly after 9/11, you moved the Minardi family down to Louisville.

    “There is a seedy side to Rick, obviously,” Vecsey told me. “And then there’s the loyalty beyond the call of duty where he takes Billy’s kids and he puts them all through college.”

    Stand with me and take in this scene for just a moment. There are lots of people gathered around the pool, but somehow it is serene. I know it’s not in your nature to stay still, but stop and absorb the tranquility of a sunny winter’s day. Stop and let the quiet wash over us.

     

     

    It was January 13, and the Cardinals, ranked No. 21, were about to take on Pittsburgh at the KFC Yum! Center. It was the team’s third matchup of the season against a ranked opponent, as Pitt entered the contest at No. 20. Once upon a time, this would’ve been a Big East showdown. It now belongs to the ACC. More progress, eh coach?

    The crowd filed in just prior to the 9 p.m. start time. Gotta love a late-arriving crowd. Doesn’t it remind you of New York? I know you and I have been inside the Garden many a night when people were still taking their seats well after tipoff. A lifelong New Yorker, I’ve spent quite a bit of time here in Louisville, having covered a number of big races at Churchill. I can see why this town would appeal to you, coach. I love it here. You’ve said repeatedly that you do too.

    I’m curious, though: Does this city love you back? The starting lineups were being announced, which meant I was about to get my answer. The arena went dark. A video ran on the big screen. Various sounds recalling Louisville basketball’s greatest moments (“The Cardinals are on their way to becoming NCAA champions for the third time in their school history!”). Then there were images of the current players. The guys huddling up. Damion Lee, the fifth-year transfer, asking his teammates, and by extension the crowd, “Who got your back?!” The crowd answered as one. “I got your back!”

    “WHO GOT MY BACK?!”

    “I GOT YOUR BACK!”

    For the moment, it looked like the community had your back, coach. When your name was announced over the public-address system (“The Hall of Fame head coach of the Cardinals is RICK PITINO!”), they responded with a healthy cheer. If the fans and alumni had any issues with the basketball dorms turning into Animal House on your watch, they appeared to have made their peace with it.

    The game was a chippy, old-school Big East battle. Sometimes, after a particularly stressful play went against you, you very nearly walked off the court, going well past the baseline. Forty-two years and still there was that intense desire to win. Or, perhaps more accurately, there was that intense desire not to lose.

    Right before the game’s first timeout, fifth-year point guard Trey Lewis appeared to blow an assignment on the defensive end. Pitt was unable to score on the play, but that didn’t stop you from chewing off Lewis’ hide when he returned to the bench for the timeout. You were so frustrated that you pulled him from the lineup. This was not a unique scene with this group. On a number of occasions prior to inbounds plays, I saw you actually grab freshman forward Ray Spalding and move him in the direction of a player you wanted him to guard, or to an area you wanted him to cover.

    Your team was a good, balanced group with few weaknesses. Chinanu Onuaku, a big man who shoots his free throws underhanded, was a force in the middle. Lee and Lewis were solid in the backcourt. Spalding was still making some rookie mistakes, but with you constantly on his ass, he was making fewer and fewer of them.

    Sam Draut, the sports editor for the independent school paper the Louisville Cardinal, has covered you for the last four years and senses the affection you have for these players. “I’ve never heard him talk this highly of a team in my four years here,” Draut says. “Even the 2013 national championship team. He was still more critical of those guys.”

    “We didn’t know how good we would be, but we knew we had a special group,” you’ll say on Feb. 5, after learning the news of the postseason ban. “I compared it to the 1987 Providence team, which is probably as close to my heart as any team I’ve coached.”

    At the Pitt game, I was seated in an upper corner of the arena, above the Louisville bench. From a distance, you didn’t look so great. Turns out you were under the weather. You ate before the game, which apparently you seldom do. The food didn’t agree with you. All you had was plain turkey with no bread, but it was still enough to send you to the latrine at an inopportune moment. With 11:15 to go in a relatively close game, timeout was signaled, and you took off your jacket and sprinted for the tunnel, shoving a team trainer out of your way. “I can’t eat game day,” you’d say afterward. “A nine o’clock game kills me. I made a mistake and I went and ate something. I get sick if I eat something.”

    That is truly amazing to me. You’ve been coaching for four decades, and you still can’t hold down food on game day.

    Despite looking pale, you were happy. Your team was playing the kind of game you always want. They were challenging shots, creating turnovers, controlling the glass. Pitt could not establish any type of offensive rhythm. Louisville 59, Pittsburgh 41.

    “I feel like my long-lost best friend came back tonight,” you said during the postgame news conference. “We’ve been waiting some time for us to play defense like that.”

    Eight minutes after you took the podium, you departed with a smile on your face.

     

     

    On a cold and sunny Tuesday in mid-January, I visited the U of L campus. It was the third week of the semester, and the campus buzzed with activity. The temperature hovered around 20 degrees, so the students marched with a purpose to their next class.

    The campus features an interesting mix of brand-spanking-new buildings and structures that look to have long passed their sell-by date. The 128,000-square-foot Student Recreation Center glistens. The Swain Student Activities Center? Not as much. (Any chance you could steer a couple of booster dollars toward renovating some of the Swain bathrooms? The men’s room on the third floor looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since the Denny Crum days.)

    I cross Fourth Street and arrive at Billy Minardi Hall. It’s small, just two stories high. It holds only 38 students. It’s deserted right now. Most of the kids are at class, or getting ready for practice. From the outside, it looks quaint. Frankly, it’s hard to picture this as a den of debauchery.

    So what’s the story, coach? Did you know? Did you not know? Did you knowingly not know? Which of those three options constitute a fireable offense? Just what should the university do with you?

    “I thought the president should have asked Pitino to take temporary administrative leave back in October,” says Milligan, the law professor. “Administrative leave in no way signals guilt or innocence. I think it would have been the best way for the university to manage the several ongoing investigations.” Milligan concedes the difficulty in proceeding with any course of action. “There’s no easy answer,” he says. “Pitino’s a world-class coach, and he’s made Louisville fans proud over the years. But the allegations are serious.”

    What if the NCAA adds to the sanctions and tacks on another year to the postseason ban, or more? What if you’re forced to give up some wins? What if you’re no longer a member of the 700-win club? Worst of all, what if the school is forced to vacate the 2013 national championship? A huge chunk of your Hall of Fame legacy could potentially be erased. It’s logical to wonder, at age 63, just how much of a punishment you’d be willing to take.

    “How long is he gonna stick around?” the Louisville Cardinal’s Draut asks. “I could very well see him sticking out one year. I can’t see him staying for two years if he knows…he can’t go to the postseason, can’t go to the Final Four, can’t go to the national championship.”

    And that’s why rumors like the one published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Jan. 16 will continue to surface, and have at least some traction. According to the report, you are considering a move to UNLV at the end of the season. “Next question, guys,” you said, tersely responding to a query about the story at a Jan. 19 news conference. “Anybody have a basketball question about Florida State? I’ll be glad to answer it. But please don’t talk about job openings in January.”

    The Review-Journal reported that the idea would be to bring your son Richard — who’s struggling in his third season as head coach at the University of Minnesota — with you as a head-coach-in-waiting, should you decide to retire. Watching you frenetically work the sidelines, I have trouble believing you plan to retire anytime soon. The game is still very much in your blood.

    To that end, I thought it interesting that you namechecked Joe Paterno — another coach who ignored many calls to resign — during your New Year’s Day press conference. There are a number of similarities between the two of you. You are not as accomplished as he was, nor as entrenched at Louisville as he was at Penn State. But you and Paterno both had long runs of success tainted by allegations. Paterno was fired in November 2011, in the wake of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's child abuse scandal. He died in January 2012 at 82.

    You spoke of the late Nittany Lions football coach with reverence.

    “(T)he one person I would never question who I have ever encountered in my life as a…basketball coach is Joe Paterno,” you said on New Year’s Day. “He would be the one guy that I would hold above reproach at everything. What did they do? They took a statue away. They probably killed him.”

    Deep down, is this an outcome that you fear?

     

     

    Wednesday, January 20, was my last chance to see you and your team up close before returning to New York. Classes were canceled for two inches of snow, but the Cardinals’ 9 p.m. game against Florida State was going on as scheduled. And 21,349 people were at the YUM! Center to see it.

    The game got out of hand quickly. A powerful dunk by Donovan Mitchell was the unquestioned highlight of a terrific first half for the Cardinals. The lead swelled to 32, its peak, toward the end of the contest. The game was in the bag, so with two minutes to go I took off for the press conference, certain another happy recap was in the offing. I did not watch the final 1:19 of the game, during which your team gave up 10 unanswered points and saw its 29-point lead trimmed to 19 at the buzzer.

    While waiting for your arrival in the pressroom, I heard screaming from behind a locked door. Turned out it was you. What could you possibly be screaming about? I couldn’t figure it out until I was handed the stat sheet, which included the final score with the somewhat narrower margin of 84-65.

    “Except for the last two minutes, it was a great performance by our guys,” you said postgame. You turned your attention to the first 38 minutes for a bit, but you just couldn’t stop thinking about those last two minutes. “Prior to the last two minutes we played great defense. We had them in the 30 percentile, and then we gave up layup upon layup.”

    Incredible. The team played 38 terrific minutes and won by 19. But you focused disproportionately on those two bad minutes. Imagine if you held yourself to that level of accountability, coach.

     

     

    I was back in New York on Louisville basketball’s D-Day, Friday, February 5, 2016. The press release arrived shortly after noon, advising that you, Ramsey and Jurich had “an important message to deliver to the university community.”

    The three of you, along with Chuck Smrt, who was hired by the school to investigate the allegations, were seated ominously in front of a black curtain. I watched on a live-stream as Ramsey shared the news that broke the city’s collective heart. “After consulting with director of athletics Tom Jurich, we made the decision to withhold the men’s basketball program from all conference and NCAA postseason competition following the 2015-’16 men’s basketball season,” Ramsey said.

    Afterward, many fingers pointed at many people. But Ramsey appeared to get the worst of it. A large sign suspended above Patrick O’Shea’s near the YUM! Center read, “Ramsey is a coward.” “Please, nobody blame Dr. Ramsey,” you said on Feb. 6. “Tom Jurich made this decision, not Dr. Ramsey. Dr. Ramsey had to OK it; if Dr. Ramsey didn’t want to OK it, he could have vetoed it. But Tom made the decision.”

    Look at you up there in front of that dark curtain, coach. Why do this anymore? What’s the point? You’ve accomplished so much. Two national championships. Seven Final Fours. What’s left?

    Some of your final thoughts on D-Day suggested this may have crossed your mind.

    “This is a punishment I thought would never happen this season. This is a decision that’s as harsh as anything I’ve seen. But I’m a soldier in this army, and I’ll go along with Dr. Ramsey. And certainly there’s no one in life I have more respect for than Tom Jurich. So we will go along with this, and we will play the last nine games of the season as if they’re the last nine games we’ll ever play the game.”

    I think back to seven-year-old me in 1992, reading your book to my mom at my dining room table. The kid who once idolized you hopes that you have finally come to realize what your friend told you years ago sitting around your pool. It’s really not a bad life.

    Sadly, the 30-year-old me knows better.

     

    Yours in basketball,

     

    Joe DePaolo

     

    This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, click here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Share On:

    Upcoming Events

      Subscribe to this podcast in iTunes or RSS

      Event Finder

      Louisville Tickets