Firing Pitino Will Be a Much Easier Call Then Solving The $40 Million Owed To Him

From Tim Sullivan of the Louisville Courier Journal

 

Rick Pitino has lost the battle – this time for keeps – but he may well win the bargaining.

A robust rebuttal by attorney Steve Pence did not dissuade the University of Louisville Athletic Association from formally firing its Hall of Fame basketball coach on Monday. Its claim of “just cause,” however, was not nearly as authoritative as its unanimous vote, leaving open the possibility that the university could be on the hook for most or all of the more than $40 million left on Pitino’s contract.

Let the gamesmanship begin. Let the lawyers start posturing and scheduling depositions, testing their leverage and the other side’s appetite for litigation. Having dispensed with the painfully obvious – that Pitino’s position at U of L had become untenable – the fight now shifts to less predictable and more contentious terrain, where many millions of dollars will be at stake.

Three weeks since the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York exposed the dark underground economy of college basketball and set in motion the end of Pitino’s U of L career, there is no longer any doubt of whether a change was warranted, and maybe not all that much relevance to the plausibility of Pitino’s version of events.

 What matters now is whether the university has sufficient grounds for terminating him without additional compensation. To read Pitino’s contract and Pence’s submission to the ULAA board is to anticipate a breach of contract suit and, probably, an expensive settlement.

“ULAA is free to fire me, just like any college is free to fire any coach,” Pitino said in a sworn affidavit signed on Sunday. “But its assertion that I have given it ‘just cause’ under my contract for that firing is baseless. The assertions contained in ULAA’s termination letter impugn my integrity, honesty, and commitment to ethics in sports. I reject those assertions. I will fight tirelessly to defend my reputation.”

 After three major scandals in less than nine years, Pitino’s reputation was already badly bruised before U of L placed him on administrative leave last month following the FBI’s revelations of conspiracy and bribery in the recruitment of five-star forward Brian Bowen. For the purposes of this case, though, what people think or suspect about Pitino may be less important than what they can prove.

Soon, the heat of the moment will recede, to be replaced by legal wrangling over ambiguous language and inconclusive proof.

For example:

Have Pitino’s assistant coaches and staff members been implicated in the FBI’s findings and the Katina Powell sex scandal? Absolutely.

Was this the result of an alleged “failure to diligently supervise compliance of assistant coaches,” as his contract requires? Tougher call.

“Any non-compliant subordinate – like any employee engaging in willful misconduct in any employment setting – likely will seek to avoid detection despite diligent supervision,” Pence argues. “ULAA cannot conclude that there was a failure of diligent supervision because of subordinates’ misconduct; otherwise, that would be requiring a guarantee.”

Did disparaging media publicity about various scandals damage U of L’s good name? Undoubtedly.

Was it the result of Pitino’s “willful misconduct?” Maybe so, but where’s the evidence?

Addressing these and related issues may not make for much of a spectator sport, but their impact could be enormous. The nine years remaining on Pitino’s contract are worth more than a third of U of L’s annual athletic budget, and that’s assuming he is awarded no monetary damages in addition to lost pay.

That U of L athletic director Tom Jurich felt the need to extend Pitino’s contract by four years, past the coach’s 73rd birthday, is a decision that probably deserved more scrutiny than it received when it was first announced in 2015.

In retrospect, that deal looks like an excessive reaction to John Calipari’s earlier contract extension at Kentucky. At the time, though, Katina Powell’s book was unpublished and Brian Bowen was two years from landing in Pitino’s lap. This was before Louisville basketball ceased to be seen as a powerhouse and became a national punch line.

The cumulative damage the university and the city have absorbed in recent year is incalculable. No coach, however brilliant, could expect to keep his job after so much scandal in so short a span.

There can be no doubt that Rick Pitino had to be fired. Whether he has to be paid is still undetermined.

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