Rick Pitino is gone at Louisville. His athletic director, too. It’s not a surprise, given Pitino’s splotchy history and the bombshell fraud and bribery allegations the FBI announced Tuesday involving college basketball.
Those charges have prompted a lot of breathless speculation about how the gig may now be up in college sports – how the FBI’s investigation will expose an underbelly that’s been winked and shrugged at for decades.
All of which may be true. But let’s hope another gig is also finally up – the charade of college coaches swearing they had no idea of the awful things happening in their program.
Pitino tried that again Tuesday, saying he was “shocked” (shocked!) to learn that someone might be doing what the FBI said they were doing at Louisville. The “whaaa?” defense has helped Pitino escape before. Not this time.
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Still, you may be hearing a lot of the same from head coaches as the FBI probe widens. “I had no idea,” they’ll say, just as they always have when assistants are caught doing the ugly stuff. Don’t believe it.
I was a sportswriter at three newspapers in a previous journalism life, and if you spend much time with major college coaches and assistant coaches, one thing becomes very clear: Head coaches are control freaks. They know everything important about their teams. They know how their best players are doing in class. They know which ones just broke up with their girlfriend. They know who is hanging around the program and why.
There is no way coaches don’t know everything about their team’s recruitment of elite athletes. It’s the lifeblood of any successful college program. They know.
The NCAA knows that they know, too, but it’s a terribly difficult thing to prove. That’s part of the reason we have “Lack of institutional control,” the all-purpose NCAA allegation that points the finger directly at those shrugging head coaches and says “you should have known.” It’s often the best the NCAA can do.
Still, assistant coaches have long been the fall guys for NCAA violations, because they’re the ones with their fingerprints on the evidence. But now we have an FBI investigation, not just an NCAA probe. As those assistant coaches face jail time instead of merely losing their jobs, some might begin to turn on the people they’ve been protecting.
They know. And soon, we might, too.