St. John's hired former Iona coach Rick Pitino on March 20 to take over operations as the head coach of the Red Storm men's basketball team.
"One of my great coaching memories was having the distinct privilege of coaching against Lou Carnesecca and St. John's, a Hall of Fame coach and historic program that I have always respected," Pitino said. "It is surreal to now have this opportunity to bring St. John's back to prominence. I'm honored, humbled and grateful."
Pitino, the former coach of the Louisville Cardinals, enters right back into the spotlight of college basketball after taking his Iona Gaels to the NCAA Tournament. Surely, some aren't pleased that Pitino is getting the attention that he is after the controversies that have followed him. Everyone must admit, however, that the coach can put together winning teams. Pitino was hired to win at St. John's, and his prior stops only indicate that he will continue his success and bring the Red Storm back to prominence.
Rick Pitino's Return to the Big East
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As a head coach, Pitino has enjoyed massive success. Starting with his first game as the head coach of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in the 1975-76 season and through his most recent tournament game with Iona, the 70-year-old coach holds a record of 834-293 in NCAA Division I basketball. Thousands of coaches have had the opportunity to coach at the top level over the course of time, but Pitino stands behind only eight coaches in career wins.
Looking back into the history books some more, Pitino has had so much regular season success that it almost always leads to postseason success as well. The veteran coach took over at Providence in 1985 and led the team all the way to the Final Four in just his second season there.
Transferring to Kentucky for an eight-year stint with the Wildcats, Pitino brought the team to prominence and reached the NCAA Tournament in six of his eight season with the Southeastern Conference squad. During that time, Pitino won the national championship in 1996 and made the Final Four two additional times with Kentucky. Pitino finished with double-digit losses in only one season with the Wildcats — his first season, in 1989-90.
Still representing the Bluegrass State, Pitino then went over to Louisville, the biggest city in Kentucky. With the Cardinals, Pitino again found himself enjoying massive success. His teams went to the Final Four three times and won the tournament in 2013. The coach had 10 seasons with at least 25 wins each while with Louisville, from 2001 until he was removed from his position after the 2016-17 season.
Pitino's Career Begins to Slide
At a glance, it would seem like a no-brainer for any college to hire Pitino. But the stories bursting out from behind the scenes of Pitino's programs were nothing short of ugly.
The first instance in which Pitino was involved in controversy occurred while he was coaching with Hawaii all the way back in 1977. The NCAA accused Pitino of providing round-trip airfare for a player between New York and Honolulu, giving out free food coupons to players, and arranging for players to exchange their season tickets for used cars.
In between jobs in college, Pitino was assigned to be the head coach of the Boston Celtics in 1997. In his time with the Celtics, Pitino compiled a sub-par record of 102-146 before walking away from the job as the season was in mid-swing in 2001. During his professional time, Pitino was never accused of any scandal, but the negative impression he left on most of those in the space has kept him out of the NBA since.
The scandals started to pile up for Pitino once he took over at Louisville. In 2009, Pitino confessed that he had sex with the wife of the former equipment manager of the Cardinals. The woman, Karen Sypher, was later found guilty of trying to extort Pitino as she falsely accused him of rape and misconduct. Though Pitino walked away with the legal victory, the morality of his involvement was hardly anything to praise.
Pitino survived the very personal controversy in 2009, but it was only the beginning of the problems that lay ahead. An escort named Katina Powell released a book in 2015 titled "Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen." In the book, Powell said that former Louisville staffer Andre McGee hired her and others for recruits and players to enjoy the escorts' sex services. Pitino denied knowing anything about the escorts' involvement with the recruits.
As a result of this scandal, Pitino received a five-game ACC suspension from the NCAA for the 2017-18 season. Louisville was also forced to vacate all wins from the 2011-12 season through the 2013-14 season. It was the first time in NCAA history that a program was forced to vacate a national title.
Making matters worse, Pitino was placed on unpaid leave and subsequently had his contract terminated in October 2017 as Louisville was hit with investigations from the FBI.
There is no excusing the kind of behavior that Pitino was involved with. And even in the situations where Pitino was not directly involved, the coach ultimately oversaw the entire program.
What saves Pitino, however, is the actions of many of his colleagues in the game. Several coaches, universities and players in the past have been willing to bend the rules to get an edge, and Pitino is no exception. As sad as it might be to say, you can make a real argument that the old coach has committed lighter violations than some involved in college athletics.
The longtime coach comes to St. John's with baggage and controversy, but any program that takes him can truly say he is not alone. Nothing heals a public wound better than time — and as Pitino will likely find success again at St. John's as he has at each prior location, his program's winning will drown out the past and allow for the coach to continue working his way back to the top of college basketball.
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