The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino is a book written by Michael Sokolove, a journalist who has covered college sports extensively. The book was published in 2018, and it focuses on the career of Rick Pitino, the current head men's basketball coach at St. John's. Pitino's previously coached at Iona, but this book is focused on his time at Louisville, where he was embroiled in two sex scandals and ultimately an FBI probe that led to his firing.
Sokolove uses his journalistic skills to paint a vivid portrait of Pitino, presenting both his strengths and weaknesses. He describes Pitino's intense competitiveness, his work ethic, and his ability to motivate his players. But he also details Pitino's flaws, including his arrogance, his penchant for pushing the boundaries, and his tendency to put winning above all else.
Louisville, as a university, was never considered a top tier institution. Tom Jurich, who had been the athletic director at Colorado State, decided to take the Louisville job in 1997. His vision was to build (literally) a sports powerhouse that would ultimately put the U of L on the map. To his credit, Jurich was a brilliant businessman. He raised an incredible amount of money to build new sports complexes, add on to the football stadium, and ultimately convince public tax payers to fund the construction of the YUM Center, a state of the art of arena for basketball.
Building facilities was only part of the plan, though. Jurich knew he needed top tier coaches to win. He hired Bobby Petrino for football and negotiated a deal with ESPN to play football games on Tuesday nights, a day when college football games had never been played.
For basketball, he hired Pitino, and backed him through two sex scandals and other inquiries by the NCAA. Jurich gave Pitino free reign by his own admission. Winning drove everything, including admission to the ACC, one of the most lucrative shoe deals in the country with Adidas, and a budget to recruit the best players in the country.
Ultimately, Jurich and Pitino are both fired after the FBI identifies Louisville assistant coaches involved in a "pay to play" scheme to lure top recruit, Brian Bowen, to Louisville.
To this day, Pitino admits no fault in the FBI's probe. He describes the actions of his assistant coaches as rogue and wrong. Essentially, "I taught them better than that." But, he also points out the tremendous hypocrisy in the probe itself: this has been going on in college sports for years. Why get involved now?
One one hand, Pitino has a point. The downfall for him is that he got caught. On the other, it's both concerning and incredibly legitimate that Pitino didn't know what was going on. If Adidas was going to pay Bowen's dad $100,000 through a runner named Christian Dawkins, should Pitino have been privy to the details?
For me, this scandal ultimately points to the biggest problem in college sports. The NCAA want's to half-ass police a system that's been broken for years. They throw our NIL as a means to bridge the gap, but within a year, that system is being abused. I'm all for a complete overhaul where a revenue sharing agreement is put in place in college sports.
While we all want to believe in the idea of amateur athletics, the reality is that the concept has been dead for years. It's time for the NCAA to recognize that's it's a multi-billion dollar, for profit, company that either hires people (players, coaches, staff) or shares with them in the revenue recognition (aka a players union).
As for Pitino, the very nature of who he is as a person: someone who exudes ultimate control, makes it extremely unlikely that anything that ever happened in one of his programs wasn't part of his purview. I'm not here to judge. Read the book and form your own opinion.
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John Willkom is the author of Amazon best-selling basketball books: Walk-On Warrior and No Fear In The Arena. John is an avid reader, sports fan, and father to two incredible little girls.
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