He arrived in Louisville 16 and a half years ago, armed with the task of restoring the Cardinals’ proud basketball tradition.
It had been four years since Louisville had reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament when it hired Rick Pitino in 2001. The former Kentucky coach seemed like a slam dunk to be the Commonwealth’s replacement for the legendary Denny Crum.
But despite the massive on-court success Pitino has enjoyed during his decade and a half with the Cardinals, his ultimate legacy may be the remnants of a basketball program that enters the 2017-18 season on Friday without its head coach, athletic director, and 5-star freshman.
Louisville’s decision to terminate Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich on Wednesday (both were technically placed on “administrative leave” for legal purposes) signals the end of an era, one of the most fruitful in college basketball over the last 15 years.
Over the last 16 seasons, the Cardinals went to the Final Four on three separate occasions and won a national title in 2013, but their inclusion in an FBI probe that surfaced on Tuesday morning proved to be too much for the university to take.
I was often asked how Pitino could be Louisville’s head coach when he was the victim of an extortion attempt in 2009 after he had an extramarital affair with a woman who wasn’t his wife.
My answer was simple — because he’s Rick Pitino.
I was again asked how Pitino could remain Louisville’s head coach when reports surfaced that the players’ dorm on campus hosted parties with prostitutes during recruiting visits.
My answer was again simple — because he’s Rick Pitino.
Rick Pitino was good for business.
Rick Pitino was good for Louisville.
His presence allowed the Cardinals to go from Conference USA to the Big East. His partnership with Jurich allowed Louisville to get into the ACC when the Big East disbanded.
Many coaches in this profession idolized him and it’s hard not to see why.
The guy dressed better than anyone.
The guy coached as well as anyone at any level.
The guy also molded more future successful head coaches than anyone in college basketball… and it wasn’t even close.
But all of that doesn’t entirely seem relevant now.
Louisville self-imposed a ban which kept it out of the 2016 postseason following the prostitute incident. The NCAA came back and added a multi-game suspension for Pitino entering the upcoming ACC season.
The Cardinals’ program was on probation, but that didn’t stop them — according to Tuesday’s FBI report — from brokering a deal through Adidas worth $100,000 to land 5-star prospect Brian Bowen last June.
For Louisville’s administration, this was ultimately the tipping point.
Pitino had survived the extramarital affair and having prostitutes in players’ dorms while recruits were on official visits, but he ultimately couldn’t survive another major violation while his program was already on probation.
What does it mean for the Cardinals?
Nothing except uncertainty.
Louisville currently has no athletic director or head coach, with practice officially ready to start on Friday. This was a top-five team with Final Four dreams, but the chances of Bowen being eligible and the Cardinals retaining their entire roster seem unlikely at best.
Two separate prospects in the Class of 2018 already announced their decommitment from Louisville. The Cardinals’ program seems destined for nothing except major steps back before it can take meager steps forward.
Why did Louisville keep Pitino around through his first two transgressions?
Because he was good for business.
Why did Louisville terminate Pitino on Wednesday?
Because enough was enough.
You can be a Hall of Fame coach and absorb NCAA investigations and public embarrassments, but you can’t be a Hall of Fame coach and absorb being linked to an FBI probe while already on probation.
Pitino will always be remembered for his regal suits and ability to pull strings between the lines as well as anyone over the last three decades.
His ability to change styles based on his personnel was second to none, as evidenced by his 3-point shooting team at Providence that went to the Final Four in 1987, which was followed by his pressing units at both Kentucky and Louisville.
Wednesday likely marked the end of Rick Pitino as a prominent figure in college basketball.
What did it mark for Louisville?
The start of a long road back to doing things the right way.
Finally, enough was enough.
Jon Rothstein has been a college basketball insider for CBS Sports since 2010 and is the lead college basketball columnist for the FanRag Sports Network. He is also the host of the College Hoops Today Podcast via Compass Media Networks, which is available via iTunes. Rothstein is also a regular in-studio correspondent for both WFAN and CBS Sports Radio. He currently lives in Manhattan.