They were a restless, hyperactive few weeks in UCLA basketball circles after head coach Steve Alford was relieved of duties just days before Pac-12 conference play began. The Bruins, for their part, immediately snapped a four game losing streak and now sit 2-0 in conference after back-to-back drubbings of Bay Area rivals Stanford and Cal in Los Angeles under interim head coach Murray Bartow.
Predictably, rumors about who would replace Alford at one of the nation’s premier amateur basketball programs got up and whirling almost immediately news of Alford’s ouster began to spread. One name that stood out like a red light flashing luridly on a dark night was 66-year-old Rick Pitino’s.
What began as nothing more than light-hearted what-ifs about hiring the ethically and legally dicey Pitino collected steam when the country’s most famous college basketball enthusiast, Dick Vitale, began tweeting out New Year’s Day that his pal Pitino represented the home-run coaching hire UCLA was seeking.
Vitale did not respond to a request for comment on the story or where the idea to start promoting Pitino for the job came from. The two have known each other professionally and personally for more than 30 years, and Vitale has been an open admirer of Pitino’s on TV broadcasts, in print, and on radio since Pitino’s time at Providence.
Vitale has stated he believes the charges against Pitino do not in reality amount to much, but acknowledged for any school to hire him would take tremendous guts. Suicidal tendencies might be a better description, but weirder hires have been made . . . . probably.
The Pitino idea still felt like a bit of a joke and was being taken that way, with something like sixty-percent of Bruin’s social media base fully against hiring the tarred-in-scandal Pitino, while the rest were either indifferent or fully game to test the damn-the-torpedoes route a decade or so under Pitino represented.
But the side-bets took a fast track to the main table when Forbe’s magazine went to press with an article making the surprise claim that Pitino was not just in the hunt for the job, but in fact the number-one target being sought by a pair of highly influential UCLA boosters, the behind-the-scenes-moneymen who heavily influence most decisions made at the top of almost every major university’s athletic department.
Citing an industry source, the article asserted both Casey Wasserman, a billionaire UCLA graduate who pushed to hire current football coach Chip Kelly, and John Branca, a high-powered entertainment lawyer with a law degree from UCLA, had zeroed in on Pitino as the school’s next basketball coach.
The article’s author, Adam Zagoria, told SB Nation he believes and trusts the source who passed him the information on Pitino, “one-hundred percent.”
“This is a person connected with the hiring process and I have total faith in them,” said Zagoria.
“I was told these two boosters wanted Pitino and were doing what they could to go after him, and I have no reason not to believe that. But I also included the caveat that the regents at the University of California had to sign off on it, and they definitely might not do that,” Zagoria told SB Nation.
A second source within the article, this time with access to coach Pitino, told Zagoria the disgraced head coach is “very interested” in the job.
Attempts to contact coach Pitino in Greece through his management were not returned at the time the article was published.
A piece published hours ago at The Athletic by college-basketball insider Seth Davis quoted Pitino saying he knew he had “no chance” at getting the job.
“Pitino being interested seems pretty logical and self evident when you consider his resume, the fact he wants to coach in college basketball again, and the kind of hire UCLA is trying to make,” said Zagoria.
Despite a report stemming from an intermediary between Wasserman and the media published at Bruins Nation claiming Wasserman was not interested in Pitino or assisting the effort, Zagoria doubts the accuracy of the claim for the simple reason it was made for publication.
“Of course that’s what’s going to be said. Why would he tell everyone what coach he is going after? Especially if it’s Pitino. What purpose would that serve? I have complete trust in my sources and what they reported to me.”
Pitino was fired from the University of Louisville after subjecting the university to three tabloid-sensation scandals in less than decade. The first incident was highly personal, involving a waitress who seduced him while he was a married father of five.
The two admitted during court proceedings to having sexual intercourse after hours inside a restaurant where the woman worked, and then again several weeks later at an assistant coach’s condominium where they’d met to talk about the first incident. Pitino later gave the woman thousands in cash she claimed she used for an abortion.
The woman, who astonishingly would go on to marry the same Pitino assistant at Louisville who made his condo available for the second meeting, tried six years later to extort Pitino using the incident for leverage and wound up sentenced to seven years in federal prison for the crime.
The second incident at Louisville consisted of escorts and strippers being used in recruiting and paid for by former assistant coach and player Andre McGee. A sort-of makeshift madame named Katina Powell wrote a book claiming McGee had paid her and her stable of girls to strip and have sex with Cardinal’s recruits, both underage and not, in on-campus facilities in exchange for money.
Pitino denied knowing anything about what McGee was doing and said his former player had betrayed him and gone rogue during the period. There was never any evidence produced tying Pitino to the recruiting practices and every other coach and administrator on the team denied knowledge.
“My inquisitors had no evidence I knew about Andre McGee’s stripper events because none existed,” Pitino wrote in his 2018 book, My Story.
The final disgrace, which saw Pitino summarily dismissed in 2017 from his $5 million dollar annual salary at Louisville, involved the shoe company Adidas allegedly paying representatives of mega-recruit Brian Bowen around $100,000 to attend Louisville, an Adidas-sponsored school. A secret FBI investigation involving wire taps and informants uncovered the information on Bowen.
But, once again, Pitino’s name was not on any of the FBI documents and neither he or any of his assistants were charged in the case. Only third-party reps for Bowen were alleged to have conspired with Adidas to exchange money. Pitino has denied all knowledge of the transaction and stated he has, “never discussed illegal recruiting schemes with Adidas or anyone else, ever.”
The NCAA has stated it cannot offer schools advisement on Pitino’s potential future eligibility as a coach in its association because the FBI will not let them investigate until they are through with both their own investigation and court cases surrounding corruption in college basketball. Nobody knows what Pitino’s punishment, if any, will be.
Interestingly, in a recent CBS Sport’s poll more than fifty-four percent of college basketball coaches believe Pitino will coach in the NCAA again.