Rick Pitino and the Pitfalls of Huge Coaching Deal

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When will these deals end?

It is nothing less than administrative malpractice for a public university to put itself in a position where it will cost $44 million to get rid of a basketball coach. Almost every coach gets fired eventually, and there is simply no upside to creating that sort of legal obligation. After all, when was the last time a coach turned down a new job because he already was in the middle of a long-term contract? There’s just no way these deals ever work out to the school’s advantage, nor are they ever in the school’s best interest. While the spotlight is on Louisville right now, there are numerous schools that could find themselves in the same boat. Bear in mind that schools do this while claiming they can’t afford to pay players.

Having said that, the deal with Rick Pitino is especially egregious. Note the following:

  • Pitino is 65 years old. His contract runs through the 2025–26 season. One has to wonder who Louisville thought they were competing with when they lavished this bounty on their coach.
  • Pitino joined the Knicks in 1987, weeks after signing a five-year contract extension with Providence. After three seasons with New York, with three years left on his deal, he signed with Kentucky. He left Kentucky with three years left on that contract to sign with the Celtics. He signed a ten-year deal with the Celtics, only to resign in the middle of the fourth season. Bottom line: whatever loyalty Louisville thought they had purchased with that $44 million probably wasn’t worth much.
  • Pitino has already been suspended for his role in the escort scandal, which came to light a few months after he signed this last extension. Louisville could have — and, in theory, still could — fired Pitino for cause when the suspension and other sanctions were announced. The catch in that theory is that the school has vigorously defended Pitino in terms of his role in the escort mess.

The debt owed to Pitino, unless the school’s claim that it has just cause for firing him holds up in court, amounts to $2,000 for every undergraduate student enrolled at the university. You might think that the university learned a valuable lesson about the corrosive effect of greed and not get itself into this situation again. You would be mistaken. This, after all, is the school that hired Bobby Petrino. Twice. A more accurate prediction would be that Louisville will open the vault to lure a big-name coach, meaning that $44 million debt load will likely double.

When a school gets hooked into one of the long deals, the only escape is to fire the coach “for cause.” While some circumstances are specified as justifying termination (e.g., probation, the commission of a crime), more often than not the definition of “cause” is in the eye of the beholder, which means that, in the best-case scenario, the school ends up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorney fees. This can go on for months, if not years, during which time the school can’t really move on, which was the rationale behind firing the coach in the first place.

Pitino could do the right thing and voluntarily resign. There is a precedent for this; Jim Tressel walked away from his contract at Ohio State when it was found that he tried to cover up a tattoo scandal. The school initially supported Tressel, but after the public backlash grew too severe both sides agreed that parting company was the best move. Like Pitino, Tressel had won a national title and still had his program at an elite level.

Failing that solution, which seems like a long shot, there’s no simple way out of this. Louisville made this bed for themselves, though, so don’t feel sorry for them.  We can only hope that other schools learn from Louisville’s misery and avoid this trap.

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