Recently I completed The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal, and the Big Business of College Basketball, by Michael Sokolove. It was a well-written book which would be useful not only to sports fans, but to anyone interested in how the U.S. is put together these days. It was published just this year, 2018.
Rick Pitino was a highly successful college coach, with stops at four schools, and also with a couple somewhat less successful jobs at the NBA level. He was voted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, and by the time he had coached his last college game (to date, anyway), his record was a remarkable 770-271, a winning percentage of .740, with two national championships included, one at Kentucky and one at Louisville, with a national runner-up finish (at Kentucky, an overtime loss in the final) thrown in for good measure. He was universally considered a great coach who got the most out of his talent, even when his talent was not as gifted as he would have liked to have playing for him. Just today I learned that he has been hired to coach a Greek professional team. He missed coaching too much to stay away for long.
The 770 wins, however, are now officially only 647, as the NCAA vacated 123 wins–including the 2012-2013 national championship won while coaching at Louisville.
Recounting the entire arc of Rick Pitino’s career would make this a multi-part series, and I will avoid that option. I’ll try to keep it short.
The vacated wins came because while Mr. Pitino was coaching at Louisville, one of his assistant coaches arranged highly unsavory parties for recruits, with sexual favors for some of the athletes included. Mr. Pitino has consistently stated that he knew nothing about all that.
That was actually strike two for Rick Pitino. Strike one was when he was involved in a sordid personal sex scandal of his own. He was involved in consensual sex with a woman not his wife. To sum up briefly, this all became public. I remember wondering if he would keep his job. He kept his job, and the woman went to prison, I think for attempted extortion.
But it was strike two which caused the NCAA to vacate all those wins, since supposedly the sex parties were an unfair recruiting advantage which helped Louisville to win those 123 vacated games. So, “to encourage the others,” as we might say, the NCAA took away all the victories, including the national championship. It remains vacated. It didn’t happen. (I think this is ridiculous. Louisville won the championship in 2012-2013. Grow up, NCAA. They tried to pull a similar trick on Penn State, taking away numerous Joe Paterno football wins temporarily, but the wins were restored eventually. Penn State’s sex scandal was far more despicable than Louisville’s. In neither case is taking away victories a sensible punishment.)
Strike three was when it turned out that a promising recruit who signed with Louisville prior to the 2017-2018 season, by the name of Brian Bowen, Jr., had a father who had received $19,500.00 (as a down payment on what was intended to be a total of $100,000.00) when his son signed to play for Louisville. Rick Pitino knew nothing about that, he says, but when this scandal came to light, it was strike three for Mr. Pitino, and he was fired just prior to the 2017-2018 season. Very likely Brian Bowen, Jr. knew nothing about that payoff to his father.
It all gets very byzantine, in trying to figure out what happened when, and who knew what. I would not be surprised if Rick Pitino really did know nothing about that $19,500.00 payment. But there is a great deal that I would not be surprised about concerning college basketball, after having read The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino.
All this, and a great deal more, is really just background for Michael Sokolove’s book. What he is really trying to do is to give us an informed view of what is going on with all of college basketball. He shows us that college basketball is a big time business, with shoe companies, school administrations, coaches and assistant coaches, summer AAU tournaments, all involved in behavior that may or may not be illegal, but often seems immoral.
While Michael Sokolove may lean left in his politics–his wife is a senior editor at “The Washington Post”–this book is not an exercise in virtue signalling. In fact, Mr. Sokolove understands that part of the problem is that the ordinary person, the taxpaying slob, is largely the victim of public education and of public theft of money to pay for huge basketball (or football) arenas. (For example, the KFC Yum! Center where the University of Louisville plays it basketball games, was built with $238 million in public funds. Suck on that, taxpaying slob with no interest in basketball.) He also understands that a great deal of the problem is that gifted athletes are actually being exploited for the sake of colleges, including college coaches who make huge salaries. The players provide the talent which makes the games interesting, and receive close to zero compensation, while the coaches and universities make millions.
Mr. Sokolove says too many insightful things to sum up briefly. Here are just a few words from near the end of the book. College basketball “serves to enrich adults within it.” Can it be cleaned up? “But the sport, as it currently exists, cannot be cleansed just by sweeping up around the corners. It has to be transformed into something that preserves the glory of the competition but does not exploit the players.” (p. 242)
He offers little hope that such reform can happen. For my part, I see little hope of reform in the near future. Public education is inherently wrong, but almost no one is ready to see that yet. Moreover, the central problem is not that a few hundred or a few thousand people are corrupt. The central problem is that we as a people are corrupt. It starts with the American Christian church, of course. Until the church reforms, our culture taken as a whole cannot reform. In the church we give 2.5% of our increase to God. He asks for and requires 10%. Moreover, we want other people to pay for our children’s education, we want Medicare, and we want Social Security. We could go on and on about our corruption. For us in the Christian community, we will need to begin to learn or relearn the difference between mine and thine. Right now, for us Christians, “Mine is mine; thine is negotiable.” No nation-wide effort to get rid of corruption will work until we root the corruption out of our own hearts and behavior.
College sports, and sports in general, have become an idol for many of us. This is probably what we should have expected. Reality abhors a vacuum. When we lose sight of God, something has to fill that void. Sports fills the void for a lot of people. In an otherwise corrupt nation, it is also not surprising that college basketball partakes of that corruption to a high degree.
Mr. Sokolove has done a superb job of turning over the rocks to see what is crawling underneath, in the world of college basketball. He has done so fairly and judiciously, without faux righteousness, and even without jumping on people who are down (Rick Pitino, Brian Bowen, Jr., U. of L. fired athletic director Tom Jurich, and the sleazy fringe figures who pass the money around while trying to take a nice cut for themselves). He says, correctly, that “On film, the great college basketball scandal of 2017 and 2018 would play as tragicomedy.” (p. 163)
The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino is an informative and thought-provoking book, well worth the time invested in reading it. You don’t have to be any sort of sports fan, to be able to appreciate this book. It is still fairly expensive. A week ago the best used price I could find was $16.30 (total) at AbeBooks. The price may come down eventually. For now, this may be a book to borrow from the library. If your local library does not have it, they will probably be able to get it for you through inter-library loan.