Sports

On Sunday, the University of Louisville men’s basketball team takes on George Mason University at the KFC Yum Center.

It’s the Cardinals’ first regular season game, and their first since the program was swept up in a federal investigation of recruiting in men’s college basketball. The program is still dealing with the fallout and facing an uncertain road ahead.

In late September, it seemed that the dust was finally beginning to settle at U of L. The school had come through an administrative shake-up, a scathing audit of the university’s foundation and a prostitution scandal involving the men’s basketball program.  

Then U of L was rattled by yet another bombshell: the school was implicated in a federal probe that uncovered an alleged scheme to bribe recruits and their families to attend schools aligned with the Adidas sports apparel company.

“The defendants’ alleged conduct not only sullied the spirit of amateur athletics, but it showed contempt for the thousands of players and coaches who follow the rules and play the game the right way,” said U.S. Attorney Joon Kim in New York, announcing the probe.

The Adidas Aftermath

Although no criminal charges were filed against anyone from Louisville, the complaint suggests the program committed some major rules violations.

Louisville has been an Adidas-sponsored school for two decades and recently signed a $160 million extension with the company.

The complaint described payments arranged for the family of an unnamed recruit, later identified as Bryan Bowen, who committed to the Cards last summer. It also mentions the involvement of two unnamed U of L coaches, one of them since publicly identified as head coach Rick Pitino.

A few days after the bombshell, University of Louisville interim president Greg Postal announced Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich were being placed on administrative leave. 

“It is vital for this university to strictly adhere to NCAA and of course, federal law,” Postal said. “Doing nothing would be a tacit endorsement of unethical and criminal behavior.”

Pitino was later fired by the U of L athletics association board. Jurich was terminated by the board of trustees in a 10 to 3 vote. 

Pitino vehemently denies any wrongdoing, saying his contact with Adidas had nothing to do with recruiting.  In a recent interview with WHAS Radio’s Terry Meiners, Pitino said U of L acted too hastily in letting him go.

“They rushed to judgement, they killed my dreams, they killed some of the players’ dreams who wanted to play for me,” he said. “They killed one of the top recruiting classes in the history of my tenure.”

Both Pitino and Jurich received blistering letters of termination from Postel, who said Jurich failed to adequately oversee coaches, and had engaged in bullying.

Jurich, speaking with WHAS television, called the accusations offensive.

“I always try to treat people with the utmost respect, everywhere, in any way of life,” he said.

Pitino and Jurich were both fired for cause, meaning the school won’t honor the remainder of their contracts. Lawyers for both have said they may sue for breach of contract.

The investigation has also resulted in the firing of assistant coach Jordan Fair and the suspension of associate coach Kenny Johnson. Recruit Brian Bowen was suspended from taking part in team activities, but his attorney told the Courier-Journal and others last week that Bowen himself is no longer a focus of the FBI investigation, opening the door for possible reinstatement.

‘One day at a time’

Just a few days before the official start of practice, U of L assistant coach David Padgett was named interim head coach. Businessman Vince Tyra was appointed to take over Jurich’s duties as athletic director.

Padgett, a Pitino protégé who played center for the Cardinals and is popular with the players, says the practices have given the team some refuge from the noise of the scandal.

“I’m literally just trying to take this one day at a time, one hour at a time,” Padgett said. “I’m not trying to think about the future, I’m trying to think about ‘hey, what do I have to try to do during practice to make us better?’  And that’s been my mindset.”

Padgett’s players seem to have adapted well to that mindset — and to Padgett.

“The adjustment was not hard at all,” said center Anas Mahmoud, one of the Cardinals’ three team captains. “Honestly, it was easier than anybody would think.   It’s a similar system, a similar basketball system, really closer to how he coaches, how he plays basketball.”

So what’s next?  The program is awaiting a hearing of an appeal of its NCAA sanctions — the fallout from the two-year-old prostitution scandal.

One of the big looming questions now is whether U of L could get the so-called “death penalty,” —  a shutdown of the program for a season or two — if more violations are discovered by the NCAA. WDRB sports journalist Eric Crawford said it’s unlikely that will happen, but not impossible.

“It’s unlikely to be imposed here, given that Louisville’s fired their basketball coach, fired their athletic director, taken those kind of steps,” Crawford said.  But it is still on the table because it would be a second major violation in a five year window.”

Until then, coach David Padgett’s Cardinals — and Louisville fans — will try to focus on basketball, and the season ahead.

Rick Howlett is host of WFPL's weekly talk show, "In Conversation."