Rick Pitino is the new coach at Iona College, a match made in modern hoops heaven.
Pitino is desperate to get back into college hoops, and a good, mid-major program at a small Catholic college in the New York area is about as good as it gets. Meanwhile, Iona gets one of the game’s best coaches, a Hall of Famer who has captured two national titles.
Well, one national title. At least officially per the NCAA. The other one was vacated, and there’s the rub on whether this entire thing works out.
Pitino wants to coach at Iona — “My passion in basketball started in New York and will end there at Iona College,” Pitino said in a statement. And Iona wants Pitino to be its coach — “I am delighted to welcome Rick Pitino to Gael nation,” Iona director of athletics Matthew Glovaski said.
But what does the NCAA want?
Pitino’s issue (at least his current issue) dates to June 26, 2017, just 11 days after the NCAA dropped a hammer on his University of Louisville basketball program. The sanctions included four years of probation, stripping the program of the 2013 national title and suspending Pitino for five games.
The “crime”? Players and recruits were found to have received sexual favors in the team dorm from prostitutes hired by a men’s basketball staff member.
Louisville was reeling, but the machine of college basketball churned on. A new five-star recruit, Brian Bowen Jr. out of Saginaw, Michigan, had signed late with the program. Now his dad, Brian Sr., a former police officer on disability, was trying to get a meeting with Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson.
All of this was revealed during a 2018 federal fraud trial, when Bowen spent two days on the stand as a key government witness. Bowen Sr. had worked with basketball middleman Christian Dawkins to make an Adidas-sponsored deal to send his son to Louisville for the sum of $100,000.
It has never been proven that Pitino had direct knowledge of the deal, but that was true of the escort scandal as well.
Panathinaikos Athens coach Rick Pitino looks on from the sideline during a game. (Angelos Tzortzinis/Getty Images)
However, text messages and FBI-intercepted phone calls between Bowen and Dawkins revealed that Dawkins told, and Bowen believed, that Johnson, the U of L assistant, would provide $2,000 a month in cash to help pay for Bowen Sr.’s apartment in Louisville.
“Christian basically told me Kenny was supposed to be getting me some money,” Bowen Sr. testified.
Considering Louisville would be considered a repeat offender and potentially up for the death penalty if such a payment went down, it seemed Johnson was leery of meeting with Bowen Sr. Rather than have the father of an incoming freshman over to the basketball facility (which would seem reasonable), the two met in Johnson’s car in the parking lot of a downtown gas station (which seems less reasonable).
“I kind of eased into it,” Bowen testified about bringing up the money. “[I said] ‘I was told by Christian you were supposed to give me $2,000 for rent.’ ”
Johnson expressed shock at the request, according to Bowen Sr.
“He was flabbergasted,” Bowen Sr. testified. “He said he didn’t know anything about it. He couldn’t do that [because] his wife would kill him.”
Nine weeks later, however, on Aug. 23, Bowen texted Johnson, “Hey Kenny, how’s it going? Wanna get together to square up?”
Johnson wrote back: “OK, will call you later on.”
Soon enough, Bowen said Johnson pulled up to the Galt House, an iconic Louisville hotel where Bowen Sr. had rented a $2,300 a month apartment for the season. Bowen testified he got in and Johnson handed him $1,300. According to Bowen, Johnson said this would not be a monthly stipend, but a sort of take-this-and-leave-me-alone deal.
“He made it pretty clear this is a one-time deal for him,” Bowen Sr. testified. “[He said] Louisville didn’t need to pay players, they’ve got plenty of players.”
Within a month, the FBI would arrest 10 men in the scheme. Pitino would not be charged but would effectively be fired (a sort of NCAA infractions lifetime-achievement award). Bowen Jr. would never play college hoops.
Now, Pitino is back, but the NCAA surely hasn’t forgotten. The Louisville case is in the infractions pipeline and no matter how Pitino might spin it, this looms over his new job.
His five-game suspension from the escort scandal won’t carry over to Iona. However, he could be hit with a far more significant show-cause penalty for this single handout.
It’s possible Bowen Sr.’s story isn’t true, but it was told under oath at a federal trial and is admissible to the NCAA case. And while it was Johnson, not Pitino, who allegedly handed over the money, the NCAA is no longer willing to let coaches who supposedly see and know nothing skate.
Under recently changed rules, “if there is a potential Level I or II violation … the head coach is presumed responsible for the violation.”
A direct payment from a coach to the father of a player — even if it were just to get him to go away — would be a Level I violation. This isn’t some kind of NCAA gray area either.
Per the NCAA, if Johnson made the payment, then Pitino is presumably on the hook for it, too. That would mean the head coach of a program that just nine weeks prior was drilled for other violations and was on probation broke another major, and very basic, rule.
Louisville is bracing to get hit because of it. Pitino probably won’t be allowed to run off to Iona and avoid it.
So, while he’s the new coach in New Rochelle, significant penalties and/or suspension are almost sure to follow him from Kentucky to New York.
For Iona, this was a risk it was willing to take. He’ll no doubt fill the grandstands and win games. But it’s a Day 1 lesson that when it comes to Rick Pitino, nothing is ever simple.
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