The first sentence of Rick Pitino’s Wikipedia page – and his is a bio that has undergone many revisions – got rewritten Wednesday. He’s no longer the coach who was fastest and first to grasp the power of the 3-point shot. He’s no longer the man who lifted Kentucky from purgatory. He’s no longer the only guy to have won national championships at separate schools.
Yes, he’s technically still all of the above, but that won’t be the first thing we think about when we think about Rick Pitino. He will come to be known as the first giant to fall in an investigation that could well to turn college basketball inside out. We see already the speed at which this is traveling: Within 24 hours of a sobering news conference in Manhattan, Pitino -- a Hall of Fame coach at one of the nation's half-dozen biggest basketball schools -- had been placed on unpaid leave, dismissal soon to come.
Louisville kept Pitino after the seamy Sex in a Restaurant case. It stuck with him after the even more sordid Strippers in the Dorm affair. But after seeing its name – actually a code name: “University-6” – in the feds’ finding, the school that would put up with anything gave Slick Rick the gate.
Louisville, see, is terrified. This isn’t the toothless/clueless NCAA doing the sleuthing. This is the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office. These folks have subpoena power. These folks can put people in jail. These folks have the wherewithal to fund electronic surveillance and confidential informants and undercover operatives, all of which were used to make this case. The feds could pick Louisville clean and leave the buzzard NCAA to pile on – and Louisville already is on probation, which means one of the sport’s tent poles could be eligible for the death penalty.
But it’s not just Louisville that’s shaking in its, er, sneakers. It’s all of college basketball. We’ve known for years that apparel companies, via the tax-exempt AAU, hold inordinate sway over recruits. The feds just illustrated how this actually works. It alleges that the family of Brian Bowen, a recruit from Michigan, was paid $100,000 by Adidas to direct him to Louisville, an Adidas school, and then to cast his lot with the company as a professional.
Shoe companies fund AAU teams, same as they outfit college programs. A couple of years ago, Pitino spoke – prescient, he was – of how ridiculous it was to be told he couldn’t recruit a player on “the Nike circuit” because Louisville was contracted to Adidas. And it does sound silly. But it’s the way of the hoops world.
As ESPN’s erudite Bob Ley said on “Outside The Lines,” the shoe companies are investing in “a futures market.” They’re all looking for the Next Michael, the original having made Nike a global colossus, or the New Steph, whose switch from Nike to Under Armour turned an earnest striver into a major player.
Four college assistant coaches – Auburn’s Chuck Person among them – were arrested Tuesday on charges of fraud and corruption. (The other three work at Oklahoma State, USC and Arizona.) The feds allege that these coaches took money from agents, investment companies and shoe companies to steer players their way. Three men associated with Adidas, the head of global marketing included, also were arrested. The worst the NCAA can do is hit you with a show-cause sanction; the feds can lock you up.
The feds can go – heck, have already been – where the NCAA could not. The feds can nail you for wire fraud. The feds can make you sorry you were born, and if you’re sorry enough, you might be inclined to turn state’s evidence, which takes us deeper into the mire. This will sound like hyperbole, but it probably isn’t: When the feds get done, college basketball as we know it might have ceased to exist, which mightn't be a bad thing.
Louisville just signed a $10-year extension with Adidas – for $160 million. The Courier-Journal reports that athletic director Tom Jurich’s daughter recently took a job as an Adidas brand manager. In other news, Tom Jurich was placed on paid leave Wednesday pending certain dismissal. He’s the man who brought Pitino to Louisville, and he goes out having reaped the rewards but ultimately the whirlwind.
As we speak, every president is asking every AD to ask every basketball coach, “Could we be in trouble with this?” Because every school has a shoe contract, and every coach wants the best players, and every good player has an AAU (and therefore a shoe company) connection. The stewards of Georgia Tech are surely wondering about the wisdom of signing with Adidas. There’s not a major university with a gym that isn’t treading lightly today.
Sometimes we hear of an NCAA investigation and proclaim doom for a program – think Miami in the Nevin Shapiro case – but doomsday never comes. We say again: This isn’t the NCAA. These are the feds. It takes Mark Emmert a week to form a coherent thought. It took less than a day after acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim stepped to the microphone for a giant to be toppled. (The feds work faster than FedEx.)
I’d like to tell you I know where all this will lead, but there’s really no knowing. I suspect it will be nowhere pleasant. I’m reasonably certain Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich won’t be the last casualties. If even half of what has been whispered about college basketball is brought to light, the NCAA tournament committee won’t have to worry about choosing a field of 68. There mightn’t be more than a dozen teams still eligible.