Perhaps I am in the minority, but I find it difficult to celebrate the sordid mess that is happening at the University of Louisville right now. When this story first broke a few weeks ago with the release of Katina Powell’s book, “Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen,” I admit my initial reaction was to laugh. After all, this was arch rival Louisville, a school whose fans have been incessantly chanting on social media for years that “Cal cheats!” These people have advised the BBN to “hang your banners with velcro because they’ll be coming down,” among other equally ridiculous assertions that UK is not in compliance with NCAA rules. So it was almost a given that I would feel a certain amount of satisfaction that these fans constantly dishing their garbage toward UK were now faced with the reality that it was their beloved Louisville program that had run off the rails instead.
It’s impossible for me to take joy in this train wreck of a scandal, though. Unlike the academic fraud situation at UNC currently under investigation by the NCAA, Louisville’s current scandal is more disturbing to me. At UNC, there were players already enrolled at the university and they willingly chose to take paper classes and allow course work to be completed for them so they could retain academic eligibility. There were also plenty of faculty and staff that made this fraud possible and, as a result have compromised the integrity of UNC’s academic credentials. Make no mistake, the UNC situation is completely unacceptable and deserves our outrage and demands the NCAA to take harsh action (whether or not that ever happens remains to be seen). But the University of Louisville has a much uglier mess on its hands and it threatens to tarnish the image of the not just the basketball program, but the entire university.
As a mother of a teenage daughter, I am certainly upset over the prostitution allegations. Even if these were adult women consenting to these acts, I will never be okay with women being viewed as “bait” to attract recruits to a school. That a member of the coaching staff arranged and paid for these parties is bad enough, but to be so brazen as to allow even one of these events to take place in a school dormitory is absolutely unconscionable. But where my Mom Radar gets really fired up is allegations that some parents even participated in the “side deals” with the strippers Ms. Powell had provided per Andre McGee’s request.
The most troubling aspect of this entire situation however, is that it seems to be more of a commentary on the overall culture at Louisville and not just one rogue basketball coach making bad decisions. The blame for that perception has to fall squarely on the shoulders of Athletic Director Tom Jurich. This is the man who stood firmly behind Rick Pitino after his sex scandal in 2009. Tom also brought back Bobby Petrino in spite of his own sex scandal while at another school. Jurich was also fine with hiring football assistant Clint Hurtt who was serving out a show cause penalty assessed for NCAA recruiting violations while he was on the staff at Miami. Petrino, taking a cue from Jurich found it perfectly fine to accept a transfer who had previously been charged with domestic abuse. Further, there have been more than a few football and basketball players that have been arrested, suspended or otherwise had off the field/court issues detrimental to their teams and their school.
Any one of those things by itself is not a huge problem. But when you add up all the pieces, it indicates a culture of “anything goes.” Get players that will help you win, regardless if they bring a host of problems with them. Setting an example of how to represent your program by keeping your nose clean is not a requirement for head coaches. Add the current allegations by Ms. Powell, and you have a program that cannot ever fully recover unless major changes are made. Even if only 10% of Powell’s story is true (and we can safely say it is since that much has been confirmed by at least 5 parties as well as corroboration of money transfers, phone calls and text messages), that 10% is enough to clean house.
I arrive at this conclusion not out of malice or with a mean spirit. I say this as a fan who has seen their own program sinking and understanding that to survive, total change is a necessity. I am of course, referring to Kentucky’s last brush with the NCAA back in 1988. While I didn’t believe 100% of the allegations against UK, there was more than enough evidence that we had a serious problem and it had developed into a culture of doing whatever it took to win, rules be damned. It was clear to me then that, even though painful it was necessary for our AD and head basketball coach, Cliff Hagan and Eddie Sutton, respectively to leave UK. While C.M. Newton was an excellent choice to succeed Hagan, those were still very dark days in Kentucky Basketball history.
Newton then made one of the most important hiring decisions in his career: he chose Rick Pitino to come in and clean up UK and bring the program back to national prominence. And that is exactly what Pitino did and he did so much quicker than anyone could have ever imagined possible. Even with 2 years of probation (including post-season bans) and 1 year of no live televised games, the excitement surrounding Pitino’s Wildcats was electric. He had tremendous success during his tenure at UK, including 2 Elite Eights, a Final Four, a National Runner-Up and of course, the National Championship in 1996. Under Rick, Kentucky was once again at the top of the basketball world and they got there following the rules and doing things the right way, a culture that is still in full swing today.
Because of what he did for the University of Kentucky, I will always be thankful to Rick Pitino and will respect what he did for our great basketball program. Make no mistake, I never did like nor understand Rick’s decision to coach at the University of Louisville. You just don’t leave the greatest program in all of college basketball and then return to coach their arch instate rival and then pretend to be surprised that the fans of your former program are unhappy about the choice And yes, it has been exceptionally enjoyable to completely dominate Louisville since Calipari arrived at UK. But I never wanted to see Rick go out like this, not with such an ugly scandal that could forever tarnish his legacy.
But it’s time for the University of Louisville to take a big reality check. The Katina Powell book was not a conspiracy launched by Indiana, Kentucky or any shoe company. This is not just an Andre McGee problem, nor is it just Pitino’s problem. At a minimum, Jurich and Pitino need to go as they both allowed things to happen under their watch that never should have happened. Whether they knew or not, they should have known. Period. It could even be argued that President James Ramsey should step aside as well, given his endorsement of Jurich.
Cleaning house at U of L will be painful, both for the school and its fan base. But instead of trying to deny what has happened or attempt to place the blame on one scapegoat, they should embrace this as an opportunity. This gives Louisville a chance to start fresh and build a new brand and a new image, one free of weekly scandals and questionable hirings. It is possible to be successful while operating within the rules and you can have winning teams filled with athletes of great character. The university deserves this, as do the students, alumni, boosters and fans. In short, it’s past time for the U of L administration to stop acting like ostriches with their heads in the sand and instead, become the phoenix that rises from the ashes.
Follow me on Twitter: @ForeverBigBlue