LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The president of Louisville announced a one-year post-season ban Friday for the Cardinals men’s basketball team amid ongoing investigations into a sex scandal, a decision that stunned coach Rick Pitino.
President James Ramsey said at a news conference that an investigation revealed violations did occur when the school reviewed allegations by an escort that a former Louisville staffer paid her and other dancers to strip and have sex with recruits and players.
Ramsey said the ban is for all post-season tournaments, including the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments. The president said he received the latest results of the investigation on Thursday, but noted the review of the allegations is continuing.
"We found out yesterday that we had a problem," said athletic director Tom Jurich, adding that university wanted to deal with the findings as quickly as possible.
Pitino was not consulted about the decision but the coach said he was "a soldier in this army, and I do what the generals say."
That does not mean he agreed with the move.
"This is a punishment I never thought would have happened this season," said Pitino, who also attended the news conference with Ramsey, Jurich and former NCAA investigator Chuck Smrt. "This is as harsh as anything I’ve ever seen in college basketball."
The Cardinals (18-4, 7-2 ACC) are currently are ranked No. 19 and scheduled to play Boston College on Saturday. They would have been a lock for a tournament berth if they had not won the league title.
The 63-year-old Pitino has denied knowledge of allegations in a book by Katina Powell that former director of men’s basketball operations Andre McGee paid $10,000 for 22 shows performed by her and other strippers, including three of her daughters.
Powell’s allegations in her tell-all book rocked the Louisville community and led to four separate investigations into Pitino’s program.
Louisville notified the NCAA about the allegations in late August and immediately launched its own investigation. The athletic department hired Smrt of The Compliance Group to look into the allegations.
Smrt said Friday that the action taken by the university is "a very significant step" considering the investigation is ongoing.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford praised Louisville’s decision, saying Friday in a statement that "removing themselves from any men’s basketball post-season opportunities is both proactive and significant. … We fully support their decision."
Pitino said he informed his players of the university’s decision earlier Friday, a moment he described as "painful." The coach said players hugged and cried, with graduate transfers and leading scorers Damion Lee and Trey Lewis particularly emotional because they came to Louisville this season with high hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament.
"As I told them the penalty, they all stood up and started hugging Damion and Trey as they cried," Pitino said. "It’s never easy for the people that don’t deserve it. This is not a team that wasn’t going to make the tournament. This is a team that is very much favoured to go very far in the tournament."
Powell’s book, "Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen" was released online Oct. 3 and in hardcover 17 days later. On Oct. 20, Powell said in interviews with ESPN’s "Outside The Lines" that she had no proof that Pitino knew about the shows that took place in the players’ Billy Minardi Hall dormitory from 2010-14.
But Powell said that with "a boatload" of recruits and dancers, "loud music, alcohol, security, cameras" in a campus dormitory, "how could Rick not know?"
The NCAA hasn’t accepted coaches’ explanations that they didn’t know about violations or illegal activities. The sports’ governing body has at times viewed ignorance as a sign of lack of institutional control in penalizing programs.
Hall of Famers such as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and SMU’s Larry Brown were recently cited, with both coaches suspended nine games each for violations they contended occurred outside of their view.
Pitino said McGee denied the allegations when brought to his attention in August, and he said other assistants weren’t aware of the activities described in the 104-page book.
As successful as the defence-minded Pitino has been at winning college basketball games, he has also been at the centre of some embarrassing episodes of sexual misconduct.
The first occurred in 2010 when Karen Sypher, the ex-wife of former assistant Tim Sypher, was convicted of trying to extort money from Pitino to keep secret their 2003 tryst on a restaurant table. She is serving a seven-year sentence for the crime in a Florida prison.
Last February, Pitino dismissed senior guard Chris Jones from the team just before his arrest for rape and sodomy of two women in a campus dorm. A grand jury declined to indict Jones and two other men in the incident.