How much should Chris Mack's Louisville Cardinals pay for problems that predated them?

Sporting News

Let’s suppose you bought a house — four bedrooms, three-car garage, great schools, a subdivision swimming pool, even. You negotiated a good deal, closed at the appointed time, lived there for 24 mostly pleasant months. You were aware the people from which you purchased the deed were a shady lot, and there had been allegations of nefarious activity, but that was their problem. This was your house now.

And then the feds came along and declared that, since the previous owners broke the law, they intended to knock down your house. There might not be any real logic to this, but too bad. You shoulda bought the one down the block.

Is that a perfect analogy to the present circumstance at Louisville? No, but it’s in the neighborhood.

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And that’s why determining what might be an appropriate punishment for Louisville is so damned difficult.

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When Chris Mack took over at Louisville, he was not unaware there were issues. Had it not been made clear U of L was “University-6” in the Justice Department documents that outlined the case against 10 men involved — directly or tangentially — in the basketball business, had representatives of University-6 not been alleged to have participated in activities that would be in violation of NCAA rules, it is likely there would have been no head coach opening for the Cardinals in the spring of 2018.

And the FBI case emerged just months after Louisville was put on NCAA probation for the investigation into the “Breaking Cardinal Rules” scandal, when it was alleged exotic dancers were brought to the basketball residence hall to entertain players and recruits.

Now, not quite three years later, Louisville has been presented a notice of allegations from the NCAA. The coach when the cited violations are supposed to have taken place, Rick Pitino, was dismissed from his position at Louisville. The athletic director, Tom Jurich, who hired Pitino nearly two decades earlier, was paid more than $5 million to leave the school, his departure deemed a “retirement” in the settlement. Assistant coaches Kenny Johnson and Jordan Fair were let go not long after Pitino. Louisville also has a relatively new university president.

The roster has turned over almost entirely since the day in autumn 2017 when Pitino departed. With guard Darius Perry transferring and forward Jordan Nwora departing for the NBA Draft, the only player from that squad who will be with the team in 2020-21 is center Malik Williams. He never played a game for Pitino. The NCAA is not forced to consider any of this when eventually determining Louisville’s punishment, just as it need not consider how Louisville gamed the system in the previous case by aligning the timing of its postseason ban to coincide, in 2016, with its one of its weakest teams in a decade.

“While I understand the allegations brought today,” Mack said in a statement, “I am confident the university will do what is right, which includes fighting back on those charges that we simply do not agree with, and for which the facts do not substantiate.”

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Perusing past NCAA verdicts suggests fairness never has been a mandate for the NCAA system of jurisprudence. Often, they get it right. Just as they often leave us all puzzled by the outcome of a case. And now the NCAA has not only the infractions committee to dispense justice, but also the “Independent Accountability Review Process,” a mechanism designed to deal with cases outside the traditional system.

Louisville’s NOA reportedly includes one Level One infraction against the program and a Level Two offense against Pitino, that he “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance.”

We can be certain that the answer to all this is not the death penalty — in NCAA parlance, a ban from competition for the offending sport for a season or more — even though the Cardinals technically might be eligible because the timing of this latest case fell within the probationary period of the previous case.

Based on the penalties available under NCAA guidelines, though, it seems possible Louisville eventually may be required to miss another postseason. It seems likely Pitino will face a suspension from his new position as head coach at Iona.

Whatever the outcome, it is inevitable someone will be furious with how the case is adjudicated. Lately, nothing is more predictable than outrage toward the NCAA.

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