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COLUMN: Why Rick Pitino will survive the escort scandal

Rick Pitino

Rick Pitino


In order for Louisville head coach Rick Pitino to be fired as a result of “Breaking Cardinal Rules” being published, the school would have to come to the conclusion that the Hall of Famer knew about what the author of the book, Katina Powell, alleges to have happened, and that he knew about it while it was happening.

The ‘it?”

That Andre McGee -- a former Louisville player, graduate assistant and director of basketball operations -- was paying a woman to pimp out, among others, her three daughters to Cardinal players, recruits and their family members, and that her daughters, and the recruits they were servicing, were potentially under the age of 18 at the time.

Before we go any further here, we need to take a step back. Ignore the famous names and the salacious allegations for a minute. Stop arguing about the veracity of Powell’s claims, or the intelligence of McGee, or whether viruses can actually erase text messages.

Ask yourself this question:

Do you truly believe that Rick Pitino would have allowed a member of his staff to pay for potentially-underage hookers for recruits had he known about it?

Because in a week where everyone in the blogosphere is talking about Stephen A. Smith vs. Kevin Durant, the question that everyone in basketball circles is asking is how in the world can Pitino, who knows all-too-well about sex scandals, keep his job after this?

It varies depending on the school -- the size of the city it’s located in, the popularity of the team, how recognizable the players are, etc. -- but this is, more or less, how an official visit typically works at the high major level:

A recruit will fly into town with his family on a Friday. They’ll all be taken out to dinner by the coaching staff who will then leave the player with his host for the weekend. The staff is allowed to provide $40-per-day in cash to spend during the visit, but depending on how much of a priority that recruit is, the amount of cash that changes hands could be much higher.

If it’s a five-star recruit on the campus of a borderline top-25 team, there could a few hundred dollars given out by the coaching staff. If there are four or five recruits on an official visit at the same time, there might $1,000 that changes hands, all of it a step removed from the head coach, who is perfectly content to remain in the dark so long as it helps him get talent to coach down the road. What the host players choose to do with that money is up to them. Maybe they go to a club and ball out. Maybe they take the recruit to a strip club. Maybe they show the recruit how awesome it is to be a basketball player on a college campus by hopping from frat party to frat party. Some recruits are only interested in getting in the gym, opting to go workout with a teammate over hitting the party scene.

Whatever the case may be, what happens on those visits doesn’t differ all that much from what happens on any Friday or Saturday night on a college campus. Those players will have a few drinks, they’ll go to a few parties, they’ll flirt with a few girls and, at the end of the night, the recruit will head back to his hotel or he’ll crash with the player that is hosting him.

The next day follows a similar schedule. The recruit will usually get a tour of the campus, run pick-up with the team and have another meal with the coaching staff and his family. If the visit is in the fall it usually coincides with a home football game, meaning the recruit will get to experience a tailgate and a game from the student section.

It’s really no different than any other college weekend.

I say that to say this: the coaching staff goes out of their way to ensure that they don’t know what happens on these visits on the off chance it gets crazy. Taking the chance on a 17-year old drinking is bad enough. I’ve heard stories of recruits raiding collections of vintage Jordans, of recruits stealing laptops out of dorm rooms and cell phones out of the locker room of players that may potentially be their future teammates.

The staff wants the players and the recruits to have their fun. It is college after all.

They don’t, however, want to have their name involved if the recruit leaves with anything other than a hangover. And they certainly don’t want anyone letting the NCAA know about the cash that’s getting spread around.

Back in 2010, when Powell said in her book this whole mess started, McGee was a graduate assistant. Graduate assistants don’t make much money. At all. One GA from a top-25 program described it like this: “all I eat is ramen while I wait for the staff to take me out to lunch.” It’s akin to being an intern on Wall Street. The money is flowing all around you while you earn peanuts fetching coffee, running errands and trying to build your network.

Which brings me back to Pitino and his coaching staff.

Frankly, I would not be surprised if the money that McGee was using for the escorts came, in some form, from the Louisville coaching staff. Powell alleges that it was as much as $10,000 over a four-year period. Maybe the cash came from boosters and maybe it came out of McGee’s own pocket, but my point here is that it’s very possible -- likely, even -- that the money came from the coaching staff without the coaching staff knowing what it was going to be used for.

If the NCAA is able to prove that the allegations Powell laid out in her book are true, Louisville and Pitino are going to get hammered, particularly if they can directly connect the program to the money that Powell and her girls were allegedly paid. For Pitino, plausible deniability is no longer a way out in the NCAA’s eyes. Whether or not the head coach was involved or even aware of what was happening does not matter. The buck stops with him. If it happens in his shop, he has to pay the price as well.

But there’s a different standard when it comes to Louisville parting ways with a coach they currently have under contract until he’s 73 years old.

Let me be clear: assuming the stories are true, if Pitino had any knowledge of what was happening with Powell, her daughers and his recruits, he should be fired with cause. If he OK’d what McGee was doing, he may end up facing some legal recourse. This was, after all, prostitution. And again, Powell is not very clear about how old the people involved in these accusations were at the time they occurred.

I don’t, however, believe that to be the case. I don’t believe that Pitino knew that this was happening. Whether or not he knew his players were partying with recruits is a different story, and Pitino would be foolish if he didn’t know that there were going to be girls around on these visits.

But hookers? I just don’t see anyway that he would have been OK with that, especially when you consider that in 2010, when all of this allegedly started, Pitino was smack in the middle of the Karen Sypher trial.

One former Louisville player told me that this was likely all McGee, that, more than anything, this was a kid whose professional career in Germany was a flop that came home trying to look cool in front of former teammates. He was also trying to impress the staff with his ability to recruit, because there are few better ways to kickstart a coaching career than to get a strong recommendation from Pitino. McGee was looking for one of those.

But is that the truth? Is that what actually happened?

Pitino knows. So do Powell and McGee.

Me? The player I spoke with?

We don’t.

I do, however, have a hard time believing that Pitino would have knowingly allowed a former player-turned-staffer to supply hookers on official visits.

Powell is not the most reliable witness, and that she fails to present any truly damning evidence in her book is as relevant as any accusation she made. She knows a lot of names and she has a lot of details, but we’re relying on her word and a load of circumstantial evidence.

In other words, there are still layers to this investigation that need to get peeled back. It’s probably not going to be a quick process.

But barring some kind of evidence that Pitino knew what was happening at Billy Minardi Hall, I can’t see Louisville killing off a Hall of Fame coaching career because Andre McGee brought around the hookers his barber introduced him to.