Rick Pitino, a man finally so toxic he can no longer find a job, has decided to retire from college basketball. The prolific head coach told the world he was “finished coaching” during an interview on ESPN’s Get Up Wednesday morning.
Pitino had come under fire at Louisville last year in what proved to be the final round of scandals in a 46-year coaching career. He and former athletic director Tom Jurich were both implicated in a “pay to play” scandal regarding former five-star recruit Brian Bowen. The ensuing investigation brought down not only the wrath of the NCAA, but also the FBI, leading to his termination on Oct. 16.
It was an ignominious end to a storied and controversial career. Pitino won two national championships as a head coach; the 1996 title while at Kentucky and the 2013 title with Louisville, though the latter would later become the first national title ever vacated by the NCAA. During that span, he made it to the Final Four seven times — three times with the Wildcats, three times with the Cardinals, and once at Providence College.
But his career was marred by high-profile embarrassments both on and off the court. He parlayed his success at Kentucky into one of the NBA’s most storied head coaching jobs with the Boston Celtics, then proceeded to alienate players and fans alike while overseeing one of the league’s worst teams. He resigned in 2001 and immediately took over at Louisville, where a 2003 tryst with the wife of his team’s equipment manager led to a heavily publicized 2009 extortion trial that put the coach and his team under a media spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
And that wasn’t it. By 2014, sex workers were accusing Pitino’s program of spending thousands of dollars on escorts for players and recruits. In 2017, with the NCAA and law enforcement agencies closing in, the university decided it had had enough; Louisville’s board unanimously voted to fire him for cause.
Fewer than seven weeks later, Pitino sued the university for breach of contract.
What does this mean for college basketball?
Pitino was the coaching equivalent of a Superfund site after he:
a) messed up recruiting so badly the FBI got involved.
b) was fired for cause after his third high-profile scandal at Louisville.
c) decided to sue Louisville for (b).
But if college basketball has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t keep a shameless man down. With 351 programs in Division I alone, there was always the chance Pitino would be hired by a small-name program despite his history. Jim Harrick lied to NCAA investigators at UCLA and was hired at Rhode Island a year later. He got hit with a “show-cause” designation after creating fake classes for his players at Georgia, but still found his way onto Cal State Northridge’s staff for 2018.
Bruce Pearl got his own three-year show-cause penalty at Tennessee in 2011 and was coaching Auburn by 2014. Isiah Thomas ran the CBA and the Knicks into the ground while sexually harassing a coworker in New York and still got to coach Florida International for three excruciating years.
College basketball head coaching landscape is a world of second, third, fourth, and fifth acts. There’s a chance Pitino locked himself out of the game for good with Wednesday’s announcement. There’s also a very real chance he pops up as the newest head coach at some forgettable mid-major school in a big city come 2022.