Jim Dey: How the mighty have fallen — and could fall further

Jim Dey: How the mighty have fallen — and could fall further

University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino was ecstatic as he marveled at his good fortune in securing what was widely perceived as a recruiting triumph.

"In my 40-something years of coaching, this is the luckiest I've ever been. I won the Kentucky Derby. ... now this is much better," he said of signing 6-foot-7 forward Brian Bowen Jr., an Indiana prep school star from Saginaw, Mich.

That was back in early June — after Louisville secured an out-of-the-blue commitment from Bowen but well before federal prosecutors filed sweeping charges alleging widespread criminal activities involving the recruitment of elite high school players.

Pitino now is singing a different tune. Out of a job and maintaining that he "will be vindicated," the 65-year-old coach is on the brink of two major battles — one with his former employer over the balance of his lengthy contract and the other with the criminal-justice system that, potentially, involves his liberty.

In 2015, Louisville signed Pitino to a roughly $51 million contract extension through 2025-26.

The extension includes $7.5 million in retention bonuses that kick in every three years beginning in 2017.

Four assistant college basketball coaches — from Arizona, Oklahoma State, the University of Southern California and Auburn — were among 10 people charged with a variety of offenses involving cash inducements to prospective recruits.

The other six men indicted were business types — an Adidas executive and an assortment of agents and financial advisers.

Pitino, who sat near the top of the heap in college basketball, was not charged. But he has been identified widely in news outlets as the unidentified Louisville "Coach 2" whose connections to Adidas could make things happen.

Pitino, so far, has been the only head coach to lose his job in connection with the federal probe. But the rumor mill has run amok, particularly as it relates to the head coaches associated with the four indicted assistant coaches — Oklahoma State's Lamont Evans, Auburn's Chuck Person, Southern Cal's Tony Bland and Arizona's Emanuel Richardson.

That includes Arizona's head man, Sean Miller; Auburn's Bruce Pearl; Miami's Jim Larranga; and Souther Cal's Andy Enfield.

The name of Brad Underwood, the University of Illinois' new men's basketball coach, has also surfaced because he worked with indicted assistant Evans at Oklahoma State and the Southern Cal. UI Chancellor Robert Jones said he does not expect any problems for the UI as a consequence of the federal probe.

It appears, so far, that Louisville has three coaches caught up in this groundbreaking inquiry. It has already fired Pitino. Over the weekend, it put two assistants — Jordan Fair and Kenny Johnson — on paid administrative leave.

That's three coaches, two of whom are referred to as Coaches 1 and 2 in the criminal charges and affidavits filed by federal prosecutors. There is no reference to a third Louisville coach in the documents.

So far, The New York Times, Louisville Courier-Journal and CBS Sports, all quoting anonymous sources, have identified Pitino as "Coach 2," who called James Gatto, a top Adidas shoe executive, ostensibly to arrange a substantial cash payment to Bowen's father and ensure his son's commitment.

Pitino has acknowledged calling Gatto but said Bowen's recruitment had nothing to do with the calls.

Louisville's president has acknowledged to reporters that he knows the name of Coach 2 but said it's not the university's place to disclose it. Pitino's lawyer has declined to discuss the identity of Coach 2. But with the walls closing in, Pitino himself isn't really bothering to deny he's Coach 2, stating it "doesn't matter if I am or not."

Pitino apparently means that he breached no rules, despite suggestions to the contrary regarding Coach 2.

The charging documents, while not explicit in their identification of Pitino, described the mystery coach as a mover and shaker, particularly with Adidas. One of the co-conspirators, Augustine, said Coach 2 could arrange payments for a recruit with one phone call. That's not the kind of influence normally associated with an assistant coach.

"No one swings a bigger (club) at Adidas," Augustine said. "All (Coach 2) has to do is pick up the phone and call somebody (and say), 'These are my guys,' they're taking care of us."

The Bowen recruitment apparently was sealed with a promised $100,000 payment — four $25,000 installments — from Adidas through an intermediary to Bowen's father, Brian Bowen Sr.

FBI Agent John Vourderis said in an affidavit that "on or about May 27, 2017," Adidas executive Gatto "had two telephone conversations with a phone number used by Coach 2. Based on the same, I am aware that on or about June 1, 2017, Gatto has a third telephone conversation with the same phone number used by Coach 2."

The affidavit noted that "two days later, on or about June 3, 2017, (Bowen) officially committed to Louisville in return for the commitment by Gatto and Adidas to pay $100,000 to his family."

Prior to signing a $160 million, 10-year deal with Louisville in August, Adidas had a smaller contractual arrangement with the university, in the neighborhood of $1.5 million a year.

The Louisville Courier-Journal, after reviewing the contract, revealed that Pitino received 98 percent of the money. It reported that "in 2015-16, Pitino received $1.5 million under his personal services agreement, while only $25,000 went to the (Louisville) program. The year before that, Pitino received another $1.5 million, while the department only saw $10,000."

Despite issuing a couple vague statements blaming "a few bad actors" for the scandal now engulfing college basketball, Pitino has said little while admitting he's keeping a purposely low profile. That reticence is in sharp contrast to the outrage he expressed earlier this year when the NCAA imposed sanctions on Louisville's program for hiring strippers and prostitutes to entertain basketball recruits.

Pitino said Louisville would appeal the sanctions because "it is right, it is just."

"Personally, I've lost a lot of faith in the NCAA that I've had over the last 35 years with what they just did," he said.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.