This story was updated.
The University of Louisville Athletic Association’s board voted unanimously to fire men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino on Monday for “just cause.”
The ULAA board deliberated in closed session for five hours before voting to terminate the employment of the Hall of Fame coach that led UofL to the NCAA championship in 2013. The ULAA resolution stated that Pitino’s “actions (and inactions) violate sections 6.1.1, 6.1.2 and 6.1.3 of his employment contract and warrant termination for just cause.”
Earlier in the closed session, the board heard from Rick Pitino’s attorney Steve Pence, who made his case for why the Hall of Fame head coach should not be fired for cause following the federal fraud and bribery scandal involving Adidas and multiple college basketball programs, including UofL.
In a press conference after the vote, UofL’s interim president Greg Postel said the board listened carefully to the arguments made by Pitino’s attorneys, but “at the end of the conversation, we felt that our initial decision to begin the process of termination for cause was still in the best interest of the university, and that’s why the resolution was put forward and passed.”
The fact that Pitino was terminated for cause means that UofL might not have to pay Pitino the remaining $44 million that he would have been owed had he served out the rest of his contract. While the resolution passed by the ULAA board made no reference to a contract buyout for Pitino, Postel told reporters that it did not preclude a financial settlement with the coach at a later date.
Pitino’s legal team submitted a 52-page defense of their client to the ULAA board that was shared with reporters after making their presentation in the closed session, which included an affidavit from Pitino, the results of a polygraph test taken by the coach, and texts between Pitino and two of the defendants in the federal case that are alleged to have played key roles in the bribery scheme.
Before the vote to fire Pitino, Pence told reporters that the board should “make the determination that the coach not only did not know, but could not have known of this scheme that was going on. And the right thing to do is to bring the coach back.”
Asked if Pitino had lost control of his program, Pence replied: “That’s ridiculous. Of course not. I think that’s a ridiculous question. I’m not going to address that… How would this indicate that he’s lost control of his program?”
As for whether the recruiting scandals led by his assistant coaches in recent years happened under his watch, Pence said that Pitino could not have stopped them, just as anyone in leadership at the university could not have stopped them.
“Nobody can guarantee the activity of everyone under them,” said Pence. “If that’s the case, if this happened on coach’s watch? It happened on President Postel’s watch. It happened on (UofL board of trustees chairman J. David) Grissom’s watch. You cannot guarantee the conduct of other people. You can do your very best to make sure they comply, and coach did that.”
Part of the defense made by Pitino’s attorneys cited a statement from Postel on June 15— when the NCAA handed down harsh penalties against the UofL basketball program due to the previous escort scandal — in which the interim president stood up for Pitino by saying he “could not have known about the illicit activities.” Asked to square that statement with his termination letter citing Pitino’s failure to properly supervise his staff, Postel said that the latest scandal caused the coach to lose the benefit of the doubt.
“I’m the kind of person that likes to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, so I was trying to put forward the best case for the University of Louisville and trying to understand everyone’s position in the matter,” said Postel. “And I think as more issues have been brought to our attention – recruiting issues related to men’s basketball – the situation changes. Again, we don’t make decisions just based on one instance, but when there’s more than one instance, it’s important to look at the context of the whole discussion.”
Pitino was placed on administrative leave one day after federal prosecutors in New York released a series of criminal complaints involving corruption and bribery in NCAA men’s basketball, including the alleged bribing of a UofL recruit in a scheme that involved multiple agents, a high-level Adidas executive and at least one UofL coach.
The board voted two weeks ago to begin the firing process for Pitino. In a letter to the Hall of Fame head coach, Postel cited a scandal where escorts were supplied to players and recruits, as well as failure to notify the proper authorities when Christian Dawkins, now one of the criminal defendants in the federal bribery case, was on campus this past May.
“Your involvement in these recent scandals cannot be considered isolated events,” Postel wrote in the letter. “Instead, they are illustrative of a pattern and practice of inappropriate behavior.”
Pence, the attorney representing Pitino, stated in a letter that the decision to place the coach on administrative leave was “in material breach of the terms” of Pitino’s contract. He told university officials to remedy that breach, or the school will have to pay out the rest of Pitino’s contract to the tune of roughly $44 million.
In his defense submitted to the ULAA board on Monday, Pitino’s lawyers argued that Dawkins is not actually an agent and there was no obligation to inform UofL compliance officers about his presence on campus. Additionally, they supplied texts between Pitino and Dawkins which they claim proves that there was no wrongdoing on the part of the coach.
Pence told reporters after his presentation to the ULAA board that UofL should slow down and examine the issue without emotion, as they “shouldn’t make the same rush to judgment” that was made by Duke University when their lacrosse team was rocked by rape allegations in 2006.
“With the Duke matter, as soon as the allegation came out, they fired everybody,” said Pence. “Fired the coach, fired the assistant coaches, put the program on suspension, and it turned out to all be a hoax. It was a scam being run. And that could be exactly what’s going on here. We just don’t know. I can’t say that that’s what’s going on, but I can say we can’t rule that out. There seems to be plenty of evidence that that is what’s going on, though.”
The ULAA board also passed a resolution Monday morning approving a one-year contract for interim head coach David Padgett, who was appointed to the position at the end of September. The contract includes a $400,000 base salary with an additional $400,000 for participation in public relations, fund-raising and other duties, as well as another $200,000 in incentives and potential bonuses.
Padgett, a former UofL basketball player, was hired as the university’s director of basketball operations in 2014 and became an assistant coach in 2016.
On Wednesday, the UofL board of trustees is expected to discuss the employment status of athletic director Tom Jurich, who was placed on administrative leave the same day as Pitino. Jurich’s attorney also argues that he is not guilty of any wrongdoing and that the university is treating him unfairly.
Caitlin Bowling contributed to this report.