The basketball recruiting scandal at the University of Louisville couldn’t have come along at a better time.
Not that there’s ever a good time for the university’s highest-profile sports team to be accused by the FBI — yes, the Federal Bureau of Investigation — of cheating in recruiting and engaging in a scheme of fraud and bribery to steer high-school-age athletes to play at the school.
Which comes on the heels of a particularly unsavory recruiting scandal involving the recruitment of underage players with sex parties and prostitution.
But the shame surrounding prominent basketball coach Rick Pitino, and the lack of “institutional control” of the coach by his boss, Tom Jurich, the athletics director, is just the tip of an ugly black iceberg that is crushing the University of Louisville.
The school, separate from its basketball team, is faced with the potential loss of accreditation, a dwindling of its foundation endowment and a serious diminishment of standing in the academic world.
This was all caused primarily by a runaway president, James Ramsey, seemingly gone drunk with the access to millions of dollars of university funds. That’s a scandal still developing, with a repair job that could require years to complete.
Money, money, money.
Postel will be the key man
Fortunately, the president has been run off — as will be the coach and the top sports administrator.
And all three at about the same time.
Which leaves the chance to go to work rebuilding UofL’s seriously tarnished reputation and repairing its trust with the public.
But if the job of coach is open now, and athletics director, and the university president, the opportunity exists to clean out all the bad wood and begin fresh.
Because what is left underneath the leadership gone bad is not disgrace. Not at all. What is left is a network of dedicated faculty (persevering under the yoke of budget cuts), a resilient student body (the kids are all right!) and a community that — when it thinks about it, when all this really soaks in — will work to strengthen the primary public university that serves as an intellectual beacon for the city of Louisville.
Fortunately, too, the acting president, Greg Postel, seems set to crack the whip on the miscreants.
Within probably a millisecond of hearing about the FBI sting, Postel made the decision to suspend coach Pitino and his athletics director Jurich. And in less than a day, he had excused them from campus and slammed the door closed behind them.
One may be certain Postel conferred with the school’s legal counsel to get things done correctly, which was to start by placing Pitino and Jurich on “leave,” with the boot to come along in an orderly fashion. As in soon.
What Postel will be able to accomplish with the school is uncertain. To begin with, many of the university’s most important financial funders have left the building, including wealthy alumni and nonprofit foundations. The question is just how does one get these key people and institutions not only to return but also help in the rebuilding process.
And Postel — who one will note is only an acting president — also must keep a lookout for a yahoo governor who has already attempted to inject politics (as in Republican vs. Democrat) into the school’s board of trustees. Plus, a legislature that is not always as interested in Louisville as it is the rest of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Plus, that accreditation issue.
Accreditation is not a problem for the future. It’s a problem of right now, with the school already on a kind of academic probation, and certification currently in review.
Gosh, what a mess.
But also an opportunity.
Seeking a coach from far, far away
Back to athletics, there are many immediate problems, including who will coach the players, with fall practice in full swing and the season due to begin in November. Postel says he will name an interim coach on Friday. Of course, that’s just temporary, and no one knows what kind of success an interim coach will have playing an Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. Usually, interims don’t hit many home runs.
But it is not an altogether unpleasant task, bringing in a fresh face. Leaders are not afraid to do that. And sports fans love to speculate about coaching changes. Love it.
Already names are being bandied about, with quick hires a task made more difficult because anyone who is any good at coaching basketball (and recruiting legally) is probably well-employed and deep in practice with his team for the coming season.
Personally, I think it would be a mistake to grab onto a veteran, established head coach who happens to be out of work at the moment. Who’d probably be angling to turn interim into permanent. And certainly not one of those former coaches performing talking-head duty on television.
In this situation, Jurich would have been perfect. He always had a Rolodex full of talented prospective coaches, knew who could coach, who had the right temperament, and so on. And he had the standing to reach out quickly to fill a vacancy with a talented coach.
But Jurich is gone.
What I’d like to see is for Postel (and the trusted hands he is surrounding himself with) to reach out all the way across the country, far outside Louisville’s conference and sphere of influence. Maybe call up a respected coach like, say, Mark Few, at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, and ask him if he could spare a bright young assistant coach for a season.
To lead practice and instill team cohesion. Not so much as an X’s and O’s wizard, as a steady person who can practice the team and get it ready to play in a tough conference. Or knows of someone like that.
Or perhaps ask Brad Stevens, the former Butler University coach, now with the Boston Celtics, whom many Louisville fans have hoped would consider Louisville for years. Ask Stevens if he’s got a suggestion.
But stay away from journeymen big-timers who might arrive with their own baggage. We already got enough baggage. I think the ideal for the coach for the future would be as in 1969, when former coach Peck Hickman tapped young UCLA assistant Denny Crum to be the new Louisville coach.
As a matter of fact, I think the very first step, before locating an interim coach, would be to assign an assistant from another sport at UofL to drop by the basketball practice hall today to pick things up. Besides keeping a team practicing and in shape, the school has a leadership responsibility to the young men it has wooed to the school to play ball.
In a decision on the sex case handed down in June, the NCAA Committee on Infractions, headed by Carol Cartwright, president emeritus of Kent State and Bowling Green, the NCAA noted its first duty was to protect student-athletes.
“NCAA members agree that schools must provide a safe, healthy and positive environment for their student-athletes, not only academically, but in all facets of their lives,” said the ruling, which was further passionately explained by Ms. Cartwright.
In other words, while the school, the NCAA, the FBI and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York determine the criminal fates of the preying adults involved in the latest case, the school has the responsibility to be there as guardians of the student-athletes it has recruited and are on the team now. Part of that is seeing to their futures as sports performers. That’s the deal.
So it is important to get some staff over to the dorms and gyms to step in on behalf of those kids. And make outside advice available to them about their options.
Speaking of the previous NCAA punishments handed down by the NCAA, we do agree with an appeal filed by the school that the penalties were too severe in wiping out more than 100 Louisville victories, a NCAA Final Four appearance in 2012, and the 2013 championship. The ruling punishes players who did not cheat but, rather, stayed dedicated to their mission and gave the greatest performances of their young lives. Those kids, now young adults, deserve to be protected as well.
But the season must go on. If for no other reason than the team has sold expensive season tickets and must pay the debt on KFC Yum! Center.
Plus, basketball is a core part of life at the University of Louisville. One may question its over-influence in the school’s priorities, but college basketball has been a wonderful positive for the school and the city. We hate the idea that all the players who put so much into establishing a grand tradition at UofL will find their hard work and dedication tarred by a rogue coach and a university administration that played along — and paid itself plenty to play.
A scandal waiting to happen
Finally, this revolting scandal could serve as a wake-up call for loyal fans. A sobering moment, in which we all need to understand that UofL isn’t the University of Basketball — it’s the University of Louisville.
And this writer includes himself. I’ve been moaning and groaning for years about the atrocious floods of cash pouring through college athletics. And the ridiculous salaries earned by coaches, including assistant coaches, some of whom earn over a million dollars a year. And the possibility of cheating, especially in basketball.
But I have written hardly a word of criticism.
Part of what makes this a good time for a jaw-dropping scandal to come along is it was probably only a matter of time until the rotten bottom fell out of the thing.
Some fans might recall questionable recruits of years past.
I remember particularly when it was announced in 2004 Pitino had signed a hot prospect point guard from New York named Sebastian Telfair. On the edge of that was the knowledge that Telfair, a high school player, already had a tie to the Adidas sporting goods company. Maybe a financial tie. No one knew if that would be permissible, or not.
Telfair’s Lincoln High School team was signed to play in a nationally televised game on ESPN, and one had to wonder where was it all headed.
Then you had the college coaches who enjoyed promotional contracts with Adidas. Pitino was one of several tied to the company, and the word was Telfair would sign with one of their schools. Pitino and Louisville eventually got the nod.
Fortunately, Telfair decided to skip college altogether and pursued a professional career. Never landed in Louisville.
Or was it unfortunate that he didn’t come here? The situation may have been investigated, a penalty could have been slapped on UofL, Adidas could have been warned off, and the whole thing have been resolved for the better long, long ago.
Instead, here are 2017 FBI tapes showing NCAA schools making deals with an Adidas executive to buy basketball players.
What a visage of shame.
And, as noted, I’m a part of the problem, not getting a word printed in protest.
One thing that can be said for the fallen leaders, Jurich and Pitino, is they certainly made positive improvements to the atmosphere and landscape of UofL. As did president James Ramsey. The campus is enriched with vibrant new buildings and architecture. The Belknap campus is more beautiful than it has ever been.
But these people and others they supervised fell into a deep Greek tragedy that has taken down the lives and careers of others in their fall.
So, let’s bury the dead skunk and bring in a fresh breath of air.
It’s a really good opportunity when you think about it.
Not to be simplistic, but the UofL fight song offers a perfect lyric at its close: Give a shout, give it all you’ve got, for we are with you UofL.
Yeah, it’s a corny way to end a story, but remember this piece began with the almost absurd assumption that this sad moment couldn’t have come along at a better time.
Bill Doolittle is a frequent contributor to Insider Louisville.