For the first time since 2017, Rick Pitino is going to be coaching in the NCAA Tournament. The Iona Gaels coach led his team, the No. 9 seed in the Mid-American Athletic Conference to a title in the MAAC Championship game.
As a result, Pitino will make his first appearance since the Louisville Cardinals lost in the second round of NCAA March Madness in 2017.
So, why did Rick Pitino leave Louisville? What has his coaching career been like to date? Here’s everything you need to know about the long-time NCAA coach as Iona takes on Alabama in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Why did Rick Pitino leave Louisville?
Pitino left Louisville after a third major scandal took place under his watch. The final straw was a pay-for-play scandal in which corporate sponsor Adidas allegedly paid $100,000 to a recruit’s family in order for him to come to Louisville. That recruit was later revealed to be Brian Bowen. That scandal impacted six universities and their college basketball programs. In the wake of the sweeping allegations, Pitino was ousted.
While Pitino has denied any wrongdoings — though he did reveal that he thought he deserved to be fired in a recent interview — unsealed court documents revealed that Pitino had called indicted Adidas executive Jim Gatto at the request of agent Christian Dawkins to have Adidas pay the $100,000 requested from Bowen. Pitino’s phone records showed three calls to Gatto before Bowen announced he would be going to Louisville.
During his time at Louisville, it was revealed that Pitino had an affair with Karen Cunagin Sypher and paid $3,000 for her to have an abortion. Sypher, wife of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher, then demanded that Pitino pay her $10 million in an extortion attempt. That scandal damaged Pitino’s image, but Louisville elected to keep him on as head coach despite the morality clause in his contract.
Additionally, there was another scandal sandwiched between these two: the 2015 Louisville basketball sex scandal. That scandal was focused on former Louisville player and Director of Basketball Operations Andre McGee providing improper benefits to current and prospective Louisville players. This included strippers and prostitutes that were provided to the players spanning 2010 to 2014.
As a result of that scandal, Pitino was suspended for five games because he failed to properly monitor recruiting activity. That suspension was set to take place to start the 2017-18 season. Ironically, in the aftermath of those events, Pitino refused to resign and claimed that he would one day “walk away in celebration”.
“I will not resign and let you down,” Pitino said. “Someday I will walk away in celebration of many memorable years, but that time is not now.”
Of course, that didn’t happen. Pitino was fired for the pay-for-play scandal before he could even serve the five-game suspension levied to him as a result of the sex scandal.
Where has Rick Pitino coached?
Pitino started his career at Hawaii as an assistant after a four-year college career at UMass. He briefly served as Hawaii’s interim head coach in the wake of improper benefits allegations and would later leave after being tied to eight of the 64 allegations.
From there, Pitino was an assistant at Syracuse for three years under Jim Boeheim and would later coach for Boston University. Pitino led BU to a 91-51 record and got them into the NCAA Tournament in 1983 when it was a 52-team field. After spending two years as a New York Knicks assistant, Pitino coached at Providence and helped turn around the Friars with Billy Donovan running the point.
After that, Pitino was given a chance to be a head coach with the New York Knicks. Pitino lasted two years with the Knicks and led them to a 52-30 record in his final year there. The Knicks made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals but Pitino, then 36 years old, wanted to go back to the college game. He ended up coaching Kentucky for eight years, posting a 219-50 record and helped to rebuild the reputation of the school after scandal under the previous regime. Pitino has the fifth-most wins in Kentucky history and helped the Wildcats win a national title in 1996.
Pitino made one more jump to the NBA after falling during the 1997 championship game. He took control of the Boston Celtics from 1997-2001 and put together what was easily the worst coaching stint of his career. Pitino’s Celtics never logged more than 36 wins in a season and missed the playoffs in each of his three-and-a-half years in charge of the team. He amassed a 102–146 record with the team and is remembered most for trading Chauncey Billups less than a year into his NBA career and trading Ron Mercer just a year later.
Despite Pitino floundering in Boston, he was still a widely-respected college coach. After his resignation in ’01, Louisville hired him and he coached there until 2017. He led the Cardinals to a 293-143 record on his watch. His 293 wins rank third in Louisville basketball history. He also led the team to a national title and another Final Four appearance, but those titles have since been vacated.
After Louisville fired him amid scandal, Pitino coached Greek club Panathinaikos to back-to-back Greek League championships and a 2019 Greek Cup win. Now, he’s at Iona and led the Gaels to a 12-5 record and a tournament berth in his first season.
Rick Pitino’s record in NCAA Tournament
During his career, Pitino has logged 55 NCAA Tournament wins, including the ones that were vacated as a result of various scandals. So, he technically ranks No. 5 all-time in March Madness wins, but he no longer appears there in the leaderboard because of the three seasons worth of vacated wins including a trip to the Final Four, a national title, and another trip to the Sweet 16.
Pitino’s teams have made the NCAA Tournament 21 times. In the opening round of the tournament, they have posted a 17-4 record overall, so Pitino’s chances of winning in the opening round look good.
However, it’s worth noting that Louisville lost in the first round in back-to-back years under Pitino in 2010 and 2011. They were a 9-seed in their first loss but a 4-seed in their second loss. So, it’s possible for Pitino-coached teams to lose early. It’s also worth noting that each of the two times Louisville was a first-round underdog under Pitino, they lost. That means it may be hard for 15th-seeded Iona to knock off an SEC powerhouse like Alabama.