Rick Pitino fails in first interview after being fired

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Rick Pitino was fired after 16 seasons at the University of Louisville. (AP)

His eyes were red. He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks, or, well, since he was a college basketball coach. He went on about lie-detector tests, being judged only by God and how, once again, he knew nothing about any cheating going on inside his program at the University of Louisville.

He appeared a mess and sounded no better. Maybe that was the takeaway from Rick Pitino sitting down with ESPN’s Jay Bilas for his first interview since another scandal, this one driven by the FBI, landed on him.

For years, Pitino was the golden boy of basketball. It wasn’t just the championships. It was the competency. It was the stylish suits and unflappable hair. It was an aura of confidence that sucked everyone in, from top recruits to NBA owners to ambitious professionals who read his books and listened to his speeches believing they contained the secret to selling more, earning more, climbing more rungs on some corporate ladder. He was basketball’s cut-throat Wall Street efficiency agent, the unapologetic, Type-A, “Greed is Good” perfectionist. He was larger than life, an impossible-to-ignore high-wattage star.

And damn could he coach.

He wrote a book he titled “Success is a Choice.” It was a No. 1 national bestseller, and he was the championship winner at the restored Kentucky Wildcats, soon headed to attempt to do the same for the Boston Celtics. Only the best brands. Only the biggest jobs. Roman Empires, he called them. He’d outsmarted people at Providence (the first to embrace the 3-point shot). He’d out-everything-ed people at Kentucky. In between he acquitted himself well enough with the New York Knicks that half the NBA wanted him.

He was always perfectly prepared, with tailored clothes, bright eyes and words as polished as they were purposeful.

You couldn’t have imagined him on Wednesday night, flailing about, his answers running in tangents and circles, trying to cling to some long-gone sense of normalcy and even religion.

He’s out of a job because the FBI alleges a $100,000 payout between Louisville sponsor Adidas and Louisville recruit Brian Bowen, a deal that occurred with the knowledge of at least one U of L assistant.

It comes on the heels of another assistant plying recruits, high school coaches and U of L players with prostitutes during more than a dozen wild parties inside the Cardinals’ player dorm. And all of that comes after Pitino was the victim of a blackmail scheme after a brief sexual encounter with a woman in an otherwise closed Louisville restaurant, which led to him having a staffer drive her to an abortion clinic where he paid the bill. The woman who tried to extort him was found guilty and sent to prison. Pitino tried to minimize it by saying the encounter “took less than 15 seconds,” much to the delight of future heckling fans on the road.

Pitino’s career, once meteoric and pristine, so smooth that he could glide through anything and inspire incredible hope and loyalty, is now more national punchline than national championship. Three scandals and you’re out. In his wake, a possible NCAA banner may get pulled down and a death penalty for the Cardinals is on the table.

Rick Pitino during his ESPN interview on Thursday. (Screengrab ESPN)

So here he was trying to sell himself to the public, just like old times. Here he was trying to claim he was just, once again, a naïve victim of everyone around him. Here he was trying to reach back and get people to believe all of this was easily explained. He used to claim he could control everything and you could, too. Just do as he said. Hell, not controlling everything was a sign of personal weakness and professional failure.

If Success is a Choice, then anything less than Success is a Choice.

This time, there wasn’t even any refined public-relations spin, though. No concise sound bites, no straight-line explanations that might turn the narrative or at least create second thoughts. Instead he appeared overwhelmed and unprepared, two characteristics no one ever before associated with Pitino. It wasn’t what he said – of course he was going to claim innocence – it was how sloppily he said it. Maybe someone equates his disheveled appearance and words as authenticity. Many others will see a PR train wreck.

When Bilas asked if he knew about the alleged payments to the Bowen family, Pitino’s answer was as such:

“No, ah, one of the toughest things you have to do, hope you never do it, is take a lie-detector test. You have a blood-pressure machine, you’re wired up. And I was asked two questions, and [I said], ‘I want you to ask me if any other recruits in my tenure are given anything.’ And he said, ‘That’s not what we’re here for, we’re here for do you have any knowledge of the Bowen family getting any money, did you have any knowledge of an Adidas transaction?’ And I answered absolutely not on both questions and passed a lie-detector test, so I had no knowledge of any of this.”

That jumble would make a crisis management expert weep. Be direct. Be firm. Don’t be whatever that was.

He was then asked what would he say to those who think he should have known.

“All I can tell you is I don’t answer to any of those people,” Pitino said. “I answer to my players who have been over the top in support of me, I answer to my assistant coaches and most importantly my family. But the one person you have to answer to is God.”

Don’t dismiss the doubters, embrace them and suggest you understand why you think that. Don’t list your family last, behind the assistant coaches, some of whom you claim destroyed you. And then don’t list God even after that. Considering the affair and the abortion and the prostitutes, it’s probably best to leave religion out of it completely.

The old Rick Pitino would have known all of that, followed all of that, delivered all of that with flair. This is a guy who left nothing to chance, who used to monitor not just his own fitness but that of his assistants, putting anyone not rail thin on diets and exercise regimens.

The new Rick Pitino? He was winging it. He said he took “ownership” of who he hired, basically a string of rogue assistants who caused all his problems, which isn’t exactly owning much of anything. He is also suing Adidas for killing his career. Sitting in a high-rise over Miami, the world is against him, apparently.

Bilas asked, “This reputation you have always had of being on top of every single detail, do you think that reputation hurts you now in the court of public opinion, with the way people look at this?”

“Jay, again, I’m going to answer to God,” Pitino said. “And I know the truth.”

It is possible, although perhaps not plausible, that Pitino really didn’t have any idea about the hookers in the dorm or the payout to the recruit. Only he knows for sure. That’s a lot different than if he should have known, or he purposely hired shady assistants that would do such things, or he didn’t do his due diligence monitoring them once they were empowered, or if he set up a culture where only winning mattered and his employees, under tremendous pressure to deliver that, did so at all costs.

If Success is a Choice, then so is the manner in which Success is Chosen.

That charade is over now, though. The image of the interview is seared into history right alongside his beaming persona from the glory days of the ’80s and ’90s.

There was Rick Pitino on ESPN, stripped bare through blood-shot eyes, thrashing about for a thread of his old reputation to hang onto, begging for a measure of sympathy from a public he once manipulated.

You know me, I used to be a star.

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