As resumes go, Rick Pitino’s is in rare company.
Beyond the legendary basketball coach’s litany of accolades, there are the conspicuous asterisks indicating one NCAA penalty or another. For every accomplishment, such as the national title he won with Kentucky in 1996, there’s another that has been vacated by the NCAA, like Louisville’s 2013 championship.
Of course, it was at Louisville where the scandals finally caught up to Pitino, who was fired in 2017 amid a federal probe into pay-for-play allegations. Pitino would later be cleared of any wrongdoing by the NCAA, but not until after he had moved on in disgrace to coach in Greece and at Iona, a mid-major school in New Rochelle, New York.
His sabbatical away from big-time college basketball has apparently absolved Pitino of his perceived sins. Now the newly hired 70-year-old St. John’s coach is returning to the Big East and the Big Apple, where he aims to repair his legacy by bringing the Red Storm back to national prominence.
Speaking to ESPN at his introductory press conference at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Pitino insisted that he’s ‘always run a clean program.’ Of course, the NCAA has certainly disagreed with that assessment over the years. The following is a synopsis of career that has included everything from national titles and Coach of the Year honors to sex scandals and exotic dancers…
New St. Johns head basketball coach Rick Pitino during a press conference at MSG last week
University of Hawaii: 1974-1976
Pitino was coming off three unspectacular seasons as a point guard at the University of Massachusetts when he accepted a graduate assistant position at Hawaii.
But midway into his second season with the team, head coach Bruce O’Neil was fired amid a 9-12 start, opening the door for Pitino to take over on an interim basis. He would go 2-4 in six games despite the presence of future Knicks guard, Reggie Carter, who later transferred to St. John’s.
Pitino’s first coaching tenure did end in scandal, however, when the NCAA released a report in 1977 that implicated him in eight of the programs’ 64 infractions.
Included in the allegations against Pitino were claims that he gave a player round-trip airfare, arranged for players to receive used cars in exchange for season tickets, and gave players coupons for free food, according to a New York Times report in May of 1989.
O’Neil and Pitino were accused of providing misinformation to the NCAA, which recommended that the program disassociate itself with both individuals.
Syracuse University: 1976-1978
NCAA probation was no problem for Pitino, who had already accepted an assistant-coaching position at Syracuse, a rising program under the guidance of rookie head coach Jim Boeheim.
In fact, Pitino delayed his honeymoon in Puerto Rico with his wife Joanne to get started at Syracuse after accepting a $17,000 annual salary, according to a 2019 piece in The Daily Orange.
‘Oh, my wife’s gonna love this,’ Pitino told Boeheim at the time.
Led by future NBA players Louis Orr and Roosevelt Bouie, Syracuse was on its way to becoming a national powerhouse in those days. And while Pitino was only there for two seasons, the Orangemen, as they were then known, did manage a pair of NCAA Tournament berths.
But even given his brief tenure in upstate New York, Pitino still managed to impress Boeheim, now his fellow Hall of Famer.
‘He was a tremendously enthusiastic young coach who really loved the game, knew the game, and understood how hard you have to work at the game,’ Boeheim told The Daily Orange.
‘He knew that at a very young age.’
(Left) Rick Pitino is photographed at St. Dominic’s High School in Bayville, NY on January 7, 1970. (Right) Pitino talks with Knicks guard Mark Jackson and Gerald Wilkins during a timeout
Pitino had two brief tenures with the Knicks: one as an assistant and another as head coach
Boston University: 1978-1983
The hard work paid off, and Pitino was soon offered his first head-coaching job by Boston University.
It was hardly a glamorous offer. BU is known as a hockey school, and its basketball program was practically a non-entity before Pitino’s tenure, winning just 17 games in 1976-77 and 1977-78.
But thanks to a staunch reliance on a full-court press, as well as future NBA forward Gary Plummer, the Terriers qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 1983 for the first time since 1959.
Along the way, Pitino worked with future NBA coach Brett Brown and Shawn Teague, the father of long-time Atlanta Hawks guard, Jeff Teague.
New York Knicks: 1983-1985
Hubie Brown lured Pitino to the NBA in 1983, when the Great Neck, Long Island native accepted an assistant position with the Knicks.
In addition to a brief reunion with Louis Orr, Pitino also got to work with center Bill Cartwright, point guard Rory Sparrow, and former Tennessee teammates, Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King.
The Knicks finished 47-35 in 1983-84, as the rival Boston Celtics went on to win their 15th NBA title, but fell to 24-58 the following season and failed to reach the playoffs.
Providence College: 1985–1987
Pitino was hired by then-Providence athletic director and future NHL executive Lou Lamoriello to take over the Friars in 1985, and he quickly gained a reputation as one of the top college coaches in the country.
Providence had enjoyed some good years before Pitino’s arrival. Under future Big East commissioner and Boston Celtics executive Dave Gavitt, a Friars team led by Ernie DiGregorio and Marvin ‘Bad News’ Barnes reached the Final Four in 1973 and finished the season ranked fourth in the country.
But the Friars struggled in the upstart Big East, falling to 11-20 before Pitino’s arrival.
What’s more, Pitino had little faith in the team’s best player, Billy Donovan, who now serves as head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
But instead of transferring, Donovan dedicated himself to his conditioning under Pitino, and quickly went from an overweight guard to one of the best players in the country.
Pitino of the Providence Friars coaches his team against Syracuse at March Madness in 1987
University of Florida head coach Billy Donovan (right) gets a hug from his former coach Pitino
‘He came back in awesome shape and was the third guard on the team that year,’ Pitino told reporters on Tuesday. ‘The following year he got so good, because I’ve never had in my life anyone work as hard to improve as him, in 35 years. We put him in a little cowboy hat, spurs and boots, and he wouldn’t put it on. I made him put it on. They put him on the cover of the program. That was the first caption of ‘Billy the Kid, the fastest gun in the Big East.
‘That was the start of his college legend.’
Donovan and the Friars would shock the college basketball world in 1987 by advancing to the Final Four with an Elite 8 win over a heavily favored Georgetown team.
Ultimately the season would end with a Final Four loss to Boeheim’s Orangemen, but Friars’ success in 1986-87 quickly made Pitino a top candidate at both the NCAA and NBA levels.
New York Knicks: 1987-1989
Pitino returned to Madison Square Garden in 1987, but the Knicks were coming off a 38-44 season and had little talent outside of center Patrick Ewing, Gerald Wilkins and Mark Jackson.
Still, the team responded to Pitino and actually squeaked into the playoffs in 1988, where the Knicks were beaten by the rival Celtics, 3-1, in the first round.
The Knicks were even better in 1988-89, winning the division as Boston’s Larry Bird battled injuries. New York reached the Eastern Conference Semis before a six-game loss to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Then at the Knicks, Pitino looks on prior to the start of an NBA basketball game circa 1988
University of Kentucky: 1989-1997
But despite his growing success in Manhattan, Pitino would be lured back to the college ranks with an offer from Kentucky – a once-proud program mired in NCAA probation following a pay-for-play recruiting scandal under former coach Eddie Sutton.
Somewhat ironically, Pitino played the roll of reformer in Lexington, promising to resurrect the Wildcats while making them NCAA compliant.
He would do much more than just that.
With their probation over, the Wildcats returned to the NCAA tournament in 1992, where they lost to Duke in the Elite 8 on Christian Laettner’s legendary buzzer-beating jumper.
Kentucky reached the Final Four the following season, and by 1996, the Wildcats were back to the top, beating Boeheim’s Orangemen in the NCAA Final.
UK would win another title two years later, but by that time, it was Tubby Smith coaching in Lexington, albeit with a group of players that had been recruited by Pitino.
(Left) Pitino celebrates a win with Kentucky’s Anthony Epps. (Right) Pitino speaks to the crowd as his players celebrate after the Wildcats 76-67 victory over the Syracuse Orangemen
Boston Celtics: 1997-2001
Pitino was picked to resurrect another basketball institution in 1997, accepting a head-coaching and lead-executive position in Boston.
He sought out former UK players such as Antoine Walker, Ron Mercer, Walter McCarty and Tony Delk, but even Pitino struggled to turn Boston around.
The Celtics would never finish higher than fifth in the Atlantic Division under Pitino, who was let go in 2001 and replaced with long-time assistant Jim O’Brien.
Pitino’s tenure in Boston is best remembered for a contentious press conference, where he appeared to blame the Celtics’ personnel for his struggles – a curious statement, considering he was in charge of assembling the roster.
‘Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans,’ Pitino said in 2000, running down a list of 1980s Celtics stars. ‘Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they’re going to be gray and old.
‘What we are is young, exciting, hardworking, and we’re going to improve. People don’t realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off. I wish we had $90 million under the salary cap. I wish we could buy the world. We can’t; the only thing we can do is work hard, and all the negativity that’s in this town sucks.
‘I’ve been around when [Boston Red Sox slugger] Jim Rice was booed. I’ve been around when [Carl] Yastrzemski was booed. And it stinks. It makes the greatest town, greatest city in the world, lousy. The only thing that will turn this around is being upbeat and positive like we are in that locker room … and if you think I’m going to succumb to negativity, you’re wrong. You’ve got the wrong guy leading this team.’
In a way, Pitino was right. A year later, the Celtics would return to the playoffs under O’Brien.
Pitino was picked to resurrect another basketball institution in 1997, taking charge in Boston
University of Louisville: 2001-2017
Despite his struggles, Pitino landed on his feet at Louisville, where an ensemble of wealthy boosters were preparing to turn the Cardinals back into an elite program.
Over the next 16 seasons, the Cardinals would reach the NCAA Tournament 13 times, winning six conference championships and the program’s third national title.
But the good times wouldn’t last.
In 2009, Pitino revealed he was targeted in an extortion attempt six years earlier by Karen Cunagin Sypher, who married Louisville assistant Tim Sypher in 2004.
He would later testify that he had sex with the woman at an empty Italian restaurant in Louisville in 2003.
‘Some unfortunate things happened,’ Pitino said in a Kentucky courtroom in 2010 during Cunagin Sypher’s federal extortion trial. ‘She opened up my pants.’
‘Did you have sex that night?’ asked assistant US attorney Marisa Ford.
‘Yes, very briefly,’ said Pitino, explaining that the two had sex at the table.
Pitino testified in 2010 that after their sexual encounter, Cunagin Sypher told the coach that she was pregnant, and he agreed to pay $3,000 for her abortion – a startling revelation for someone who speaks regularly about his catholic faith.
She was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to 87 months in prison.
Karen Sypher walks into Federal Court in Louisville, Kentucky, on Thursday, April 24, 2009. Sypher was charged with extortion by US District Court in connection with threatening correspondence toward University of Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino
Despite the scandal, Pitino remained in charge at Louisville, but his scandalous tenure with the Cardinals was only getting started.
In a 2015 book, escort Katina Powell claimed that former Louisville basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers for sex parties in order to entice recruits to sign with the school.
After years of investigating, the NCAA vacated 123 Louisville wins under Pitino, including the 2013 title. Louisville removed the championship banner from its home arena soon after the NCAA’s 2018 ruling.
However, Pitino wasn’t blamed for the scandal, outside of the NCAA’s charge that he failed to control his program.
It wasn’t until September of 2017, when federal prosecutors announced that Louisville was being investigated for a pay-for-play scheme, that Pitino finally felt the heat.
Although Pitino was never named in the FBI/DOJ investigation, the program was accused of buying the commitment of prized recruit Brian Bowen II.
The ensuing scandal ultimately led to Pitino’s firing, although he was never charged with a crime, and has continued to deny any involvement in the scheme.
Ultimately, last year, Pitino was cleared in the NCAA investigation.
‘I was totally exonerated because I was innocent of any—I got two Level II violations of not being able to monitor,’ Pitino said after Iona’s NCAA Tournament loss to UConn earlier this month. ‘I got letters from every player I’ve coached, every assistant coach that’s ever coached to send to them to say what a disciplinarian I am.
‘So I had to wait five years for them to basically stall my career out to finally get exonerated. It was exonerated by an impartial committee made up of legal people—legal people, not ADs and not people they hand pick. So for five years they put me in the outhouse because they couldn’t get their stuff together.’
(Left) Pitino is hugged by Francisco Garcia of the Louisville Cardinals after a win over West Virginia; (Right) Pitino hoists the trophy after defeating Michigan in the 2013 March Madness
A year later, Pitino was coaching again, although not in the NBA or NCAA.
Instead, he would take over Panathinaikos, an Athens-based club considered to be one of the higher-profile teams in Europe.
In addition to winning the Greek League in 2019, Pitino’s tenure in Athens is best remembered for his pleas for fans to quit smoking in the arena.
‘I smoke cigars on a golf course, but there’s nobody else around,’ he said in 2019, as quoted by the AP. ‘But you’re in an arena and 10,000 are smoking and the players are choking. So, sooner or later, you’ve got to say: ”Hey man, we’re at an athletic event and I’m going to discipline myself and we’ll wait until halftime. And I’m going to go out and blow my brains out with cigarettes.”
‘That’s your option. But not when there are athletes and there are little kids who want to come to the game. … But they don’t care about young people and the athletes who are breathing it in.’
Pitino of the Iona Gaels reacts in the second half against the Connecticut Huskies in Albany
Iona College: 2020-2023
Pitino made his triumphant return to the US in 2020, agreeing to coach the Iona Gaels in what appeared to be his swan song.
Instead, thanks to two NCAA Tournament berths in three seasons, Pitino would get a chance to return to the Big East with St. John’s.
‘So, when I went to Iona, I said that Iona was going to be my last job,’ Pitino said at MSG on Tuesday. ‘And the reason I said that is who’s going to hire a 70-year-old ? No matter how much I think I’m Peter Pan, who’s going hire a 70-year-old?’
St. John’s: 2023-
As it turned out, the Red Storm were willing to hire a 70-year-old, even with Pitino’s baggage.
‘Yeah, sure, there’s some reputational risk because of things that have happened before, but I think Rick is at a point in his life where he’s learned from things that have happened in the past,’ St. John’s president, the Rev. Brian Shanley told The Associated Press.
‘I think he’d be the first one to tell you he’s done things that he regrets. Who doesn’t when you get to be that age? I know I have. I’m a believer in forgiveness and new beginnings as a priest, and I think Rick’s going to do a great job for St. John’s.’
Some may question the decision by St. John’s, but Pitino isn’t second guessing.
‘I deserve it,’ he said, ‘because I’ve earned it.’
Now at St John’s, the often-controversial Pitino will try to resurrect his career once again
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