My Thoughts on the Decision, the Scandal, and the Future of Louisville Basketball

Last Friday around noon, I started seeing tweets about a press conference that the University of Louisville would hold, in which they would announce a postseason ban for the men’s basketball team this year. Obviously as a lifelong, fan of the Cardinals; and a fanatic about college basketball, that was quite a bomb to drop all over my Friday afternoon.

I knew this day would come, so I didn’t immediately smash anything within arms-reach. When I was younger, that would’ve been my immediate reaction. Instead I’ve chosen to give it a couple of days to allow the emotion of the situation to die down a bit; and organize my thoughts on the ordeal in its entirety.

There are a number of aspects to this story which need to be addressed, and I’ll attempt to approach each one of them individually, and present my opinions; and offer solutions when possible. I didn’t write anything about this situation when it surfaced last summer; but as a U of L fan, I have to put in my two cents, so here it goes.

The most important variable in this whole scenario is the decision made on Friday; a self-imposed, postseason ban on this year’s team. First of all, does this make sense? The answer is no. If the concern of University President Ramsey was to provide the NCAA with a pound of flesh, in order to avoid them taking more; why not do so before the season started? Doing so would have allowed Damion Lee and Trey Lewis to seek out a waiver to play elsewhere if they wanted to.

Clearly this is a move to try to avoid long-term damage to the program. Which, sure, yes, that’s important too. But ultimately, it’s just a weak, politically driven move. Save face at all costs, keep the program safe for the future, blah, blah, blah.

You knew at some point penalties were coming, regardless of how weak or strong this case, penalties were coming. So why not take your chances. Force the NCAA to impose the penalties. We all know it takes them years to do it anyway. Don’t take the moment away from the current players who were not a part of the situation. I realize this isn’t really an earth-shattering viewpoint, and it’s been said; but it bears repeating.

Then there’s the self-policing aspect of this whole thing. This certainly isn’t something new. It has been happening in the NCAA for years. I thought it was garbage last year when Syracuse did it, especially since there was a good chance they weren’t going to qualify for the Tournament.   I don’t think any better of it now.

First of all, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s akin to someone getting caught after robbing a bank, then offering to give back the remainder of the money; and in exchange, receiving no jail time. Personally I think the penalty for violations should be loss of scholarships. Nothing else has as significant of an impact.

Sure, playing in the NCAA Tournament is important. But taking away scholarships may facilitate a schools lack of participation, by proxy. If you don’t have enough scholarships, you can’t recruit as effectively. If you can’t recruit the types of players necessary to win consistently, you won’t be in the tournament. You’ve now effectively penalized a school for their indiscretions; and it will be on them to operate efficiently going forward, in order to get back in the game.

After Louisville played on Saturday, Rick Pitino offered an alternate solution. The penalty would be a $10 million fine to the school in violation; along with the Head Coach losing half of his salary; regardless of whether or not it could be proven he was involved.

Okay, not bad, but my concern would be where that money goes. The NCAA isn’t exactly a beacon of light, so I don’t really trust them to handle that cash. Next thing you know, every school in America will be found to have violations; and the coffers of the NCAA will be filled. Personally I’d pass on this option.

Caught up in this whirlwind, are the current U of L players. Garnering particular sympathy, are Damion Lee and Trey Lewis. Both of these young men transferred from mid-major schools Drexel, and Cleveland State, respectively. They’re seniors, who will now have no opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.

That is the battle cry that many Cardinals fans are championing after this decision. While I agree with them, it’s not only because of Damion and Trey. Don’t get me wrong, I really like these guys. However, transferring to a school that routinely participates in the Big Dance doesn’t guarantee you anything.

The decision wouldn’t have been fair if it was done this year, next year, or the year after; because none of these kids were involved with the alleged violations. If the University decided to impose this ban next season, it wouldn’t have been fair for Mangok Mathiang. He’ll be a senior, and a guy who will have been with the program for five years. Is it more fair to take away his senior season? I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, simply due to the nature of the beast, future teams will always be the ones penalized for past indiscretions. No matter what school you’re at, the guilty parties are typically long gone. Again, that’s why I think scholarship loss, in addition to suspensions of the Head Coach are, better options.

Now, I do want to bring Damion Lee and Trey Lewis back into focus for just a moment. Due to this announcement, the spotlight has suddenly been turned directly onto them. Most of the attention is good; and people feel for them. That’s great, and they certainly deserve it. They’re both great guys, work hard, and have been leaders. As a Cardinals fan, I couldn’t ask for more; thank you guys.

On the flip side, there have been a number of college basketball analysts who have decided that this is a perfect time to rip them to shreds. Suddenly, the fact that they’re both graduate transfers makes them traitors. Suddenly, they left their former schools in the lurch. Are you [insert bad word] kidding me!

Funny how many of these same people are on the side of the athlete when it comes to leaving school early, or jumping straight to the NBA. In those situations, it’s all about what’s right for the athlete. So a kid transferring to a more prestigious school, after having spent a number of years at a mid-major, is a betrayal huh? What a joke.

Transfers have to meet specific requirements in order to actually do this. One of those being, that they have to transfer to a school that offers a graduate degree program not offered at their current school. The previous school also has to grant their blessing. So don’t tell me about kids betraying a school. The universities get plenty of mileage out of them while they’re there.

Graduate transfers have been taking place for years. They have become more prominent in the last decade or so. In my opinion, the ability to transfer in this manner is actually a way to true-up a kids recruiting. In an era of over hype, and instant gratification, plenty of “top recruits” underperform at major schools.

Kids like Damion Lee and Trey Lewis both outperformed the level of school they ended up at. Why shouldn’t they be afforded the opportunity to now choose a high major school, and compete at the level they dreamed they could? They’ve earned it. They also earned the right to play in the NCAA Tournament.

If the powers that be at the University of Louisville deemed it necessary to take that away, they should’ve done it as soon as this news broke. That way, Trey Lewis could’ve been playing at Xavier and Damion Lee at Maryland or Arizona; enjoying a shot at the title. Regardless, not one person should be acting like these guys deserve some punishment for choosing to transfer. Save your “Karma is a bitch” sentiment. It’s as stupid your superstitious beliefs. Phew, moving on.

So then there’s the actual case. As fans, most of us never want to believe it when extracurricular activity takes place. I certainly won’t suggest that nothing happened here. I believe that Andre McGee had an arrangement with Katina Powell. I’m sure some money changed hands. I also don’t believe there’s much more to it than that.

Sure, that alone would have penalties assigned to it. McGee was a member of the basketball staff, so anything he did, or attempted to do to try to lure recruits, would be a violation. What is irksome though, is that still to this day, not one thing has been concretely proven. Not one thing.

The hundred page pamphlet they classified as a book has pictures of people hanging out at parties fully clothed. Heavens to murgatroid, how could they do that! Powell’s so called ledger is a compilation of vague information, unconvincingly scrawled on notebook paper. How that amounts to evidence, I just don’t get.

Players already on the team were mentioned, like Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell; along with former players like Terrence Williams, who was already gone to the NBA. Russ was a lightly recruited, two-star athlete coming out of high school. No one was using additional means to try to lure him anywhere. Needless to say, there are holes in the story.

For months the Powell camp kept indicating that she has piles of additional evidence that hasn’t been produced yet. I ask this question, because I haven’t heard it asked enough; why wasn’t it in the book then?

If your intent was to bring this to light, so that those participating in these indiscretions are brought to justice, why not write a much more detailed book, with every piece of evidence possible? There was no timeline to finish this. If all of this evidence existed, they could’ve written an entire series of books, and really blown the doors off the University. That way, the case would be open and shut. It doesn’t add up that they would leave critical evidence out of the book.

Now, people will, and have asked, “Why would U of L self-impose sanctions, if they weren’t told of more evidence being uncovered?” That’s a valid question, but there’s a simple answer. For the same reason people plea bargain in court when not guilty; the fear of greater punishment, based on the appearance of impropriety. Like I said, if I were in charge, I’d go Colonel Jessup, and tell the NCAA that if they want to investigate me, they could roll the dice and take their chances. But I’m a stubborn SOB, and I’d probably get the book thrown at me.

I don’t believe that there’s any more to this case than there was in October when everyone took a hiatus from talking about this. In my opinion, U of L was simply informed that they were going to be facing sanctions regardless, and chose to try to soften the blow with this peace offering.

Again, I’m not saying that the program isn’t likely due some penalties, but I don’t think they should have kowtowed to the NCAA and offered them up. The NCAA should have been forced to impose their penalties based on the vague facts and half-truths they have available to them.

Finally, where in all this mess does Rick Pitino fall? As to the decision to forego the NCAA Tournament this year, by all accounts, including his own, he wasn’t consulted. In a way he’s lucky, because most of the Louisville fan base isn’t laying blame on him for the decision. Who knows if he would’ve made the same recommendation, with the specter of his future teams being in jeopardy? I’d like to believe he would’ve chosen to allow this team to finish the season; and cross the bridge of violations if/when the NCAA determined what those would be.

I also have questions about Rick’s future as the U of L coach, based on the fact that he wasn’t consulted on this. Even if Tom Jurich and James Ramsey were going to make the ultimate decision; wouldn’t they at least ask Coach Pitino what his thoughts were? He’s been here for 15 years, and he’s the Hall of Fame, face of your program. I don’t think he’ll be fired, but it certainly seems like a strange way to handle that decision.

That brings us to Rick’s role in the allegations that have led us here. Logically, there’s no reason to believe that he would know about alleged hooker/stripper parties taking place in dorms. First of all, he doesn’t reside anywhere near the dorms. Head Basketball Coaches aren’t popping into the dorm rooms of their players to see what they’re up to.

He’s also not involved in the hosting portion of the recruiting visits. Coaches essentially instruct the host players not to let the recruits get into too much trouble, or do anything that will land them on the evening news. Major college basketball coaches aren’t invited to the party portion of the night. So no, if there were hookers and strippers on recruiting visits, Rick Pitino would not know or be involved in it.

Another variable which doesn’t add up to Coach Pitino being involved with providing prostitutes to players/recruits, is the method with which it was done. A lot has been made of the money which was involved. Folks, according to Katina Powell, it was $10,000 over four years; and approximately 20 “parties”. Well, if you bust out your calculator that’s only $500/party.

The early sentiment is that the money had to come from someplace else, other than just Andre McGee. Why? You’re telling me a Director of Basketball Operations couldn’t afford $500? Hell, a handful of college kids could scrape together $500 to pay for a stripper party themselves. I know college athletes are always portrayed as these poor, malnourished souls, but that’s awfully presumptive. Not every kid who gets an athletic scholarship comes from poverty. I’m not claiming that these particular kids did that in this case, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

The main point I’m trying to make with the money though, is that if Rick were going to do this as a means to land recruits; he wouldn’t have done it on the cheap. The man is a millionaire with connections. He would’ve spent top dollar, for beautiful high-priced escorts, who worked for a madam that had a reputation for discretion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning the practice. I’m simply suggesting that if a coach of Pitino’s means were to use this tactic, they’d channel it through unnamed parties outside of the program; and not leave any sort of trail.

Now, if you want to approach this from the viewpoint of whether Rick Pitino should have known what allegedly transpired, then you have a valid argument. The answer there has to be yes. I firmly believe that the Head Coach, especially in college basketball, is the CEO of the program. They get paid the big bucks to have total control of their program.

I know that’s not really fair. Especially considering that coaches at other programs have escaped punishment in the past by claiming ignorance, but that doesn’t make it right. If this was going on over the four year period, then he had to hear a rumor, or a whisper, something that would pique his curiosity. If he didn’t then he wasn’t paying enough attention, or didn’t want to know. And yes, for that, there are consequences.

How U of L moves forward with Rick Pitino is the burning question. Many people feel that he should be fired, that this scandal is the last straw; and that group includes many Louisville fans. If the administration would choose to do that now, based on the circumstances, I’d understand it. I felt the same way after the Karen Sypher scandal. I wouldn’t like it necessarily, but I get the argument for it.

I love what Rick Pitino has done for this basketball program, and I think he’s an all-time great coach. His tenure, and the last five years in particular, have been everything a fan could ask for when it comes to success on the court. That said, as much as I don’t want him to, there’s a large part of my heart and mind that feels like he should resign. Take the high road, and allow the program to move forward. He’s accomplished all that there is to accomplish, and it may simply be time for a fresh start.

In my lifetime, Louisville has only had two coaches; Denny Crum and Rick Pitino. Two Hall of Fame coaches, two legends of the game. It would be a painful transition, but one that may be necessary. No matter what decision is made about Coach Pitino’s future, I’ll support the team.

Ultimately, my loyalty is to the University of Louisville Basketball Program. I want what is best for the continued success of the program. We have the best fan base in college sports, and that’s why during this period of tumult, now more than ever, Cardinals fans need to band together and support this team. Louisville First, Cards Forever.

Photo: Paul and Cathy/Flickr