SALT LAKE CITY — Rick Pitino critics are everywhere these days. He’s the pariah of the month.
I’ll give him this much: He looks good in a suit.
Still, college basketball’s most vilified coach has his devotees. One is Mark Pope, head basketball coach at Utah Valley University, who says he isn’t condoning Pitino’s behavior. At the same time, he’s saying the former University of Louisville coach changed his life in a positive way.
Previously suspended for running a basketball program that allegedly hired prostitutes to entertain players, Pitino has been reported to be part of a federal corruption investigation into whether recruits were paid by Adidas to sign with college teams. His attorney denies Pitino is part of the investigation.
Pitino is a brilliant coach, but he also has the elusiveness of a snow leopard and the lasting power of salt. The only coach to take three teams to the Final Four might yet salvage his legacy. He is suing Adidas, saying the shoe company conspired to funnel money to a recruit’s family without his knowledge.
In 1977, when he was at Hawaii, Pitino was cited for eight NCAA rules violations, which he maintains he never committed. In 2009, the married father of five had an affair with a woman who claimed he paid for her to have an abortion. He said the money was to pay for insurance. Though she was later convicted of extortion, his reputation took a hit.
Then came the 2015 book that triggered his five-game suspension this year. A former escort said a Louisville basketball staffer paid for the players’ indecent entertainment.
Pitino insists he knows little if anything about the scandals that have dogged him. Strange, coming from a man who, according to Pope, applies “relentless” attention to detail.
Pope, who played for Pitino’s 1996 national championship team at Kentucky, has a different take than most. Asked to comment on Pitino’s situation, he says, “I’d love to talk about it.”
He continues, “You only meet two or three people in your lifetime — if you’re lucky — that absolutely change who you are from your core; who can rearrange your DNA and make you a better human being. Coach did that for me and my teammates.”
Is this the same coach who keeps making news for the wrong reasons?
“So I get all this other stuff,” Pope says, “but I’ll love and honor him 'til the day I die.”
Pope references a book by Brené Brown on “daring greatly” by risking ridicule of others.
“Coach Pitino helped me go from ‘excruciating’ to ‘exquisite’ more than anyone I’ve ever been around,” Pope says.
That’s the problem with people. They’re so complicated. Pitino has always been likable on a certain level — positive, convincing, articulate, focused. That translated to both media and recruits. He coached Providence College to the Final Four in 1987, Kentucky to the national championship 1996, and Louisville to the title in 2013.
Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who played last year for Pitino, didn’t say a lot after the latest scandal hit, except to note there will be a Louisville “brotherhood forever.” Former player Chinanu Onuaku told a Houston TV station, “I love that man. He taught me how to be a man.”
“I’m grateful, because of the incredible relationship we had and what he did for me,” Pope says. “Those two things, in my mind, are able to remain separate. I have such strong feelings. I love him and his family so much.
“Listen, Coach is one of two or three voices in this college game that were above everybody else, in terms of stature, and he’s carrying that responsibility, and that’s really hard. And I get all the implications. But as for me, I’ll love him forever.”
Pope loves Pitino for what he’s done for him and for the game.
I’m still trying to get over what he’s done to the game.