LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- In a move that could be best described as bizarre, or maybe disingenuous, the University of Louisville, which fired Rick Pitino for his alleged role in a recruiting scandal, is now defending him, in essence also using him as a defense of its own.
Pitino was dismissed by UofL in October 2017, and the two sides later settled a lawsuit.
But in its 104-page formal response to the NCAA Notice of Allegations, released in a redacted form Monday afternoon, the school disputed the NCAA's charge that Pitino, who is now coaching at Iona, failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.
UofL's reasoning is that after the prior infractions case involving strippers and sex parties in the basketball dorm, Pitino dedicated himself to knowing every single thing that goes on in his program and it's improbable to think he didn't follow that policy during the six-day period the NCAA enforcement staff contends.
The university had vowed "pushback" on the alleged violations, and its response certainly lived up to that promise. It's an interesting approach, to say the least, in that if UofL believed Pitino to be innocent, why did it fire him, along with athletics director Tom Jurich?
The NCAA has alleged one Level I violation, the most severe possible, and three Level III violations related to the recruitment of Brian Bowen II and involvement of Pitino and two former staff members -- Jordan Fair and Kenny Johnson.
According to UofL's response, "In the wake of that (strippers case), Pitino engaged in substantial remedial efforts to promote an atmosphere of compliance in the men's basketball program. During this period, Pitino said that he met with his staff "every single day," "went overboard at every meeting saying we must be compliant with every little detail," and "extensively" discussed rules relating to "coaches, runners, (and) shoe companies."
"Pitino also said he had a ‘firm’ rule that "you violate (NCAA rules), your career is over." Pitino told his staff that "I have to know everything" and there should be "no surprises."
UofL added that members of the basketball staff and the compliance office confirmed Pitino's account. The university is seeking to have all four violations classified lower.
UofL's response also downplayed the call between Pitino and Adidas executive Jim Gatto in which Gatto offered to assist in Bowen's recruitment. Pitino told the enforcement staff that the call lasted about two minutes and that he found the it "strange" because Gatto was not usually involved in recruiting.
Given UofL's close relationship with Adidas, the school's argument in that regard is just as intriguing because it tries to distance itself from the shoe manufacturer from which it has gladly taken millions of dollars in sponsorships in recent years.
In announcing a $160 million extension of Adidas' deal with UofL, Jurich said, "We're part of the Adidas family. And I certainly hope they know they are part of the Cardinal family." He also described the two as "arm-in-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder."
Rather than arm-in-arm, UofL tries to paint itself as being at arm's length and a victim rather than a co-conspirator of Adidas. Gatto and consultant Merl Code, along with aspiring agent Christian Dawkins, were convicted by a federal jury of felony fraud charges including multiple counts of wire fraud, with prosecutors describing UofL and other schools as the victims of a scheme that resulted in them signing elite high school talent.
UofL challenges the "erroneous contention" that the conspirators were representatives of the University's athletics interests and argues that the NCAA should reject its enforcement staff's "dramatically overbroad theory" concerning the Level I allegation and classify the case as a Level II-Mitigated violation.
"Keeping these universities in the dark was part and parcel of the plot," UofL states. "Notably, no evidence generated in the course of the FBI's investigation indicated that any of the University's administrators, coaches or student-athletes were culpable or had any knowledge of the fraud being committed against the University.
"Under the enforcement staff's view, any concessionaire or broadcaster who pays a University pursuant to a contractual relationship makes a "contribution" that renders it a representative of its athletics interests.
"For instance, by entering into a commerical naming rights deal for the University of Kentucky's football stadium, the Kroger supermarket company -- along with all of its thousands of employees -- would all become representatives of that institution's athletic interest, and the university would be responsible for all of their conduct under the NCAA Bylaws. Yet up until now, neither the enforcement staff nor the Committee on Infractions has ever suggested that NCAA rules mandate that absurd result."
Now we'll see if the NCAA buys UofL's argument. The NCAA's reponse is due by Nov. 15. Then the school has 15 days to rquest the entity that will hear the case -- the NCAA's Committee on Infractions or the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP).
Current UofL coach Chris Mack has declined to publicly speculate on the possibility of any potential penalties. However, during an interview on Louisville Sports Live on 93.9 The Ville last week, UofL commit Mike James, a 6-6 forward from Orlando, Fla., said Mack has told him the program is expecting a one-year postseason ban "at the most."
"He said he’s not expecting it to be as bad as people say it will,” James said of his conversations with Mack. “It’s a whole new staff. Nobody from that staff when it was all happening is there now. Louisville basketball already punished themselves, they kept themselves out of the tournament one year. At the most, he thinks it won’t be that bad, a year out of the tournament. He said, 'Mike, looking at the other schools on your list, you wouldn’t be getting to the tournament anyway, so you’ll be just fine.' He had a point.”
By way of comparison, Oklahoma State received a one-year postseason ban, three years of probation, and recruiting restrictions for a single Level I violation earlier this summer. Kansas was charged with five Level I violations for its role in the pay-for-play scandal, with that school's punishment expected to be handed down in the near future.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.