NCAA's Louisville dilemma: Punish former coach Rick Pitino or current players?

The University of Louisville released its notice of allegations from the NCAA on Monday from violations alleged to occur toward the end of Rick Pitino’s tenure as head men’s basketball coach. The school faces one Level I violation and three Level II violations, including one directed at Pitino.

Let’s skip all the NCAA jargon and get to what really matters. Three seasons after the public revelation of the Department of Justice’s federal investigation, everyone is ready to know one thing: What’s going to happen?

The actual empirical consequences to Louisville’s case won’t be known for about another year. But Monday is a good indication that Louisville is facing serious sanctions from the NCAA. And Iona should be worried about a suspension for Pitino, its new coach.

Cover enough NCAA infractions cases and you’ll realize that anyone who tells you they know what will happen in terms of punishments is either lying or guessing. So here’s the best guess based on reading the document: Louisville will get either a one-year or two-year postseason ban and significant recruiting sanctions. Pitino will have to sit somewhere around eight to 10 games. Again, no one knows. Beyond projecting that the billable hours will pile up and the lawyers from Bond, Schoeneck & King can afford new beach houses, anything else is a guess.

(Less of a guess is how daunting Kansas’ case looks in comparison, as it didn’t fire its coach, blasted the NCAA and are facing three Level I violations.)

Other than billable hours, the only eternal certainty when regarding the NCAA is that it’ll move slowly. The cases from the federal basketball scandal are already losing to glaciers. (Although there are slower glaciers still at LSU and Arizona.) It’ll be four full basketball seasons before everything is resolved, not exactly the type of swift justice that deters anyone’s behavior.  

Rick Pitino of Panathinaikos looks on during a EuroLeague basketball match played between Real Madrid Baloncesto and Panathinaikos BC at Wizink Center pavilion on Feb. 24, 2020. (Oscar J. Barroso/Getty Images)

So what happens from here? First off, the Committee on Infractions or, potentially, the NCAA’s new Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP), must end up deciding whether there are enough facts to support the allegations. These are charges that emerged today more than final decisions.

From there, they’ll have to sort through a much thornier dilemma: Do you hammer a school that’s gutted the program and athletic department in the wake of this scandal? (Although not the last one). Or do you hammer the coach who was in charge during both these scandals, got fired and spent three seasons out of the sport?

The answer is that it will be some combination of both. And we’ll inevitably see athletic director Vince Tyra and Chris Mack rail on the NCAA for punishing kids who’d barely hit puberty back when the NCAA violations occurred.

If you listened to Louisville’s conference call on Monday, you’d have been delighted to know that they replaced all of the evil trolls tied to this case with Mother Teresa’s helpers. The notice revealed they’ve had scandals at Louisville since 1957, an oral history of which we’ll surely read about on The Athletic if this pandemic continues.

Louisville has had two recent major cases. But rest assured, the compliance department is run with KGB-level scrutiny. (Can’t really say FBI in college basketball these days.) The school that brought us restaurant-table escapades, stripper parties in the dorm and federal testimony about a six-figure deal being cut for a recruit, has had a compliance epiphany. Hallelujah. Louisville’s commitment to NCAA rules is “unparalleled” now, as the Cardinals are a standard in college athletics.

You can’t blame Louisville for saying exactly what it needed to say. You can’t blame us for snickering at it all, either.

The most interesting part of the call from the NCAA compliance minutia standpoint came from Tyra’s assertion – and he admitted he was freelancing a bit – that the IARP could come into play and be helpful for the university’s cause. He was attracted to the notion that it would punish individuals involved – like Pitino and former associate coach Kenny Johnson – more so than the institution. He was guessing, essentially, based on the sentiment from the Rice commission. There’s no precedent, so guessing is all any administrator can do when a case goes down that path. (There’s no appeal, which is a huge drawback.)

Louisville’s best arguments against the Level I violation likely won’t be around major facts. There’s too much federal court testimony, too many wiretaps and far more specific detail than you see in most notices of allegation. (It’s amazing how far we’ve come that there’s no flinching at a $100,000 impermissible recruiting offer.) Instead, Louisville’s case revolves around the administrative housecleaning after they fired Pitino and former athletic director Tom Jurich.

The bad news for Louisville is among the six aggravating factors that will be considered. (And, yes, six potential aggravating factors is a lot.)

“At the time of the violations, the institution was awaiting a decision from the Committee on Infractions and subsequently on probation as a result of the decision, a prior Level I infractions matter involving the men's basketball program.”

Simply put, they knew this level of scrutiny could come and the school was part of brokering a six-figure offer for Brian Bowen and allegedly doled out cash to his dad. Mother Teresa’s helpers, sadly, arrived too late to deter them.

There’s no good way to defend what Louisville did. And there’d be significant backlash if Louisville got off without strict punishment. So the NCAA is caught between getting beat up for punishing uninvolved players or letting a serial violator off easy.

There are no good answers there. All the more reason to declare the only certainty in this is that the answers will come slowly, letting the lawyers win again.

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