Rick Pitino puts on full-court press to defend his legacy

play
The complicated legacy of Rick Pitino (3:17)

Rick Pitino's resume as a basketball coach is largely one of success, but his off-court controversies have left a shadow over his legacy. (3:17)

In Rick Pitino's mind, he's guilty of only one thing: ignorance.

It has been almost a year since the FBI investigation into bribery and fraud in college basketball cost the Hall of Fame coach his job at Louisville. The scandal sent shock waves through the sport, but it has been a slow-moving storm since. Coaches who were linked to the investigation have received contract extensions; most of the players who were held out of competition will return to the court this season; and the NCAA tournament went off without an issue.

Pitino, meanwhile, remains the only head coach to have lost his job, and he remains defiant that he did nothing improper or illegal, only that he placed his trust in the wrong people.

"If you know me, you know I don't cheat, you know I don't do these things," Pitino said in an interview with ESPN. "These prosecutors don't know anything about basketball, anything about me."

In a book entitled, "Pitino: My Story," co-written with Seth Kaufman and to be released Tuesday, Pitino takes aim at the FBI, the Louisville board of trustees, sneaker company influence and more. The book is in many ways an attempt by Pitino to clear his name and redefine his legacy.

Will we remember him as one of the most successful and influential college coaches of all time? Or as a coach mired by his association to some of the game's most sordid scandals? If it's true we've seen the last of Pitino coaching on a sideline (more on that later), then he would like, in his words, to be "on record" as providing his own defense of his career.

Pitino has steadfastly denied knowing about a 2015 sex scandal in which former assistant Andre McGee provided strippers and prostitutes to recruits and players.

"I didn't ask them, 'Did you see any strippers?' That didn't dawn on me," Pitino said. "Six players on my team never witnessed anything. They didn't see anything, so how the hell was I supposed to find a red flag?"

He also denies any knowledge of a scheme to pay the family of Brian Bowen. Bowen's family allegedly received $100,000 from Adidas for him to sign with the Cardinals in June 2017.

"I have never given $5 to a player," Pitino said. "I have never given an inducement to a player, at all. I don't believe in it; that's not the way I coach."

If that were the consensus, Pitino's legacy as one of the greatest college basketball coaches would be intact. He helped change the way college basketball was played, from his teams' reliance on 3-pointers to his use of the full-court press. He was ahead of the curve when it came to analytics and player development.

Despite his successes, there's a black cloud over Pitino's name right now, which is part of the reason he wrote the book. In it, he lays the blame for Louisville's scandals at the feet of former assistants McGee and Jordan Fair, who was let go by Louisville after the FBI investigation became public.

"The fact is, I hired Andre McGee and Jordan Fair," Pitino writes. "I have to live with the consequences of that decision and everything it set in motion."

However, Pitino is most upset with two groups: the FBI and the Louisville board of trustees.

Referred to as "collateral damage" by the FBI, Pitino, much to his chagrin, was easily identifiable in the FBI documents, despite not being named in them directly. Pitino told ESPN the only two reasons the FBI brought him into the investigation was for publicity or because they believed Christian Dawkins, the agent/runner at the heart of the investigation.

"Why was my name mentioned? You're not indicting me and I'm not on any wiretaps," Pitino said. "They had a scam artist [Dawkins] mention my name and took that at face value and ruined my passion in life."

As for the board of trustees at Louisville, Pitino alleges that the "highest levels of the state government" influenced his firing, spearheaded by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Papa John's founder John Schnatter. Pitino insists the board wanted him out even before the FBI investigation, hoping to start fresh with a new school president, a new athletic director and a new basketball coach.

Pitino, along with athletic director Tom Jurich, was terminated shortly after the FBI investigation was revealed, and Pitino sued the University of Louisville Athletic Association in November for breach of contract, seeking more than $35 million.

Last month, court records filed by the university said Pitino "intentionally ignored 'red flags' relating to Bowen's recruitment" after hearing allegations DePaul offered the five-star prospect $200,000.

"That's the funniest thing I've ever heard," Pitino told ESPN. "One text message from someone who has nothing to do with the game of college basketball says I hear DePaul offered $200,000. I tell my assistant coach, he laughs at it. When I asked [Bowen] what schools he had interest in, he never once mentioned DePaul. ... They're not even in the hunt. It's gossip. There's no proof anyone has given anything to anyone. So I'm going to ruin DePaul's reputation by spreading gossip? I didn't believe it for a second. Why would I report gossip?"

Whether or not you believe Pitino's protestations of innocence, the question remains: Does he think he will get another chance to return to coaching?

Pitino's return to the college game will be an annual talking point every spring when the coaching carousel begins to spin. He was linked to openings at Rhode Island and Siena this offseason, and there will undoubtedly be more rumors to come.

But does he have a legitimate chance to come back? Does he even want to?

Jeff Van Gundy, a former assistant of Pitino's at Providence and now a basketball analyst for ESPN, briefly mentions the prospect in the book's foreword: "Now my dream for Coach is for some brave college athletic director to read this book and believe in Coach the way our Providence team believed in him, and give him another opportunity to do what he does as well as anyone who has ever coached basketball -- win big and help the young men that play for him develop their full potential as players and people."

There's not another reference to coaching until the final pages of the book, when Pitino writes that "my coaching career is possibly finished."

"I'm not really thinking about coaching again in the future because I'm not in control of that. I feel it's over for me." Rick Pitino

When pressed for an answer by ESPN, Pitino admitted it could be the end of the road for him.

"There was one job this past year that I really did want. They called the NCAA and the NCAA said, 'We're handcuffed. The FBI will not allow us to investigate; we can't give you a yes or no on Rick Pitino because we're not allowed to investigate,'" Pitino said. "I'm not really thinking about coaching again in the future because I'm not in control of that. I feel it's over for me."

If it is indeed over, Pitino's legacy is a complicated one. In the near future, it will be impossible to mention him without addressing the multiple scandals that eventually led to his termination at Louisville. In 10, 20 or 30 years, though, how will he be remembered? If asked to choose one coach to win an NCAA tournament game, many coaches will still pick Pitino. He won two NCAA titles. (Yes, two. The vacated 2013 title at Louisville still happened.) He reached seven Final Fours and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.

And maybe that's the hardest thing for Pitino to deal with: Coaches, no matter how successful, don't get to choose their legacy. Pitino can defend himself and make his case, but he can't control how people remember his career.

"I was in gym shorts eight hours a day for 40 years," Pitino told ESPN. "To leave the game because of the Southern District of New York and the Louisville board of trustees, it's a bitter pill to swallow.

"But at least I'm on record."