Louisville, Ky. In a state where basketball is king, Rick Pitino cuts quite the fine figure.
Designer suits, Italian dress shoes, best-selling books on how to succeed on the court and in life, a hit TV commercial with fellow college coaching titans Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, a devout Roman Catholic whose priest friend often leads the Louisville team in pregame prayer.
On top of that, he’s a winner.
His greatest challenge, however, may be saving his career and reputation in the midst of a salacious scandal.
Karen Sypher, the woman accused of trying to extort $10 million from Pitino, approached him in a restaurant six years ago and they had sex, the coach told police. She says it happened after closing time at a table.
Two weeks later, the married father of five gave Sypher $3,000 after she said she was going to have an abortion and didn’t have health insurance, according to a summary of Pitino’s July 12 statement to police. His attorney, Steve Pence, said Wednesday that the money was to help her get medical coverage, not specifically to pay for an abortion.
“The coach believed that the money was for insurance, that’s what she said it was for and that’s the way his report reads,” Pence said.
University of Louisville President James Ramsey expressed surprise at the new details in the scandal surrounding the 56-year-old coach, a staunch Roman Catholic whose contract includes dishonesty and moral depravity as grounds for firing.
Pitino said Wednesday that he’ll continue coaching the Cardinals “as long as they will have me.” He apologized for what he called an “indiscretion.”
“I do want to say that the past seven months have been very difficult on the people I love,” Pitino said. “I am here today because I personally apologize to my family every single day. I let them down with my indiscretion six years ago and I’m sorry for that and I tell them that every day.”
He said he would “be quiet” about the extortion case, but that he is cooperating with authorities and has consistently told them, his family and friends the truth. He did not take questions.
The school president expressed disappointment in Pitino’s “errors in judgment” but pledged to move forward.
“As we try to teach our students, when you make a mistake you admit it and right it as best you can,” Ramsey said in a written statement. “Coach has done that today.”
Athletic director Tom Jurich said he was “a million percent” behind Pitino and he expects him to remain the head coach at Louisville “for a long time.”
Moving forward won’t be easy, even for the only coach to lead three different schools to the Final Four.
Though Pitino has brought star quality to his programs, he has also presented the image of a dedicated family man. His children frequent Louisville’s home games at Freedom Hall and he often speaks about his relationship with wife Joanne.
Yet his carefully crafted public image has taken a hit since the Cardinals ended their season with a loss to Michigan State in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.
In April, he acknowledged he had contacted the FBI about a possible extortion plot against him. Sypher, 49, was then indicted on May 12 on charges of extortion and lying to federal authorities. She has pleaded not guilty.
After she was charged, Sypher told police the sex with Pitino was not consensual, and said he also assaulted her when they met two weeks later to discuss her pregnancy. Pitino denied the rape accusation and Kentucky authorities said there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.
Sypher’s attorney, James Earhart, said Wednesday that while some details have surfaced, he expects the rest to come out eventually.
He said Sypher and her family “have suffered a lot, and they continue to suffer every day as a result of this.”
In 2004, Sypher married Pitino’s equipment manager Tim Sypher, who the complaint says brought Pitino a written list of demands from his wife, including college tuition for her children, two cars, money to pay off her house and $3,000 per month. The demands later escalated, the complaint said. Tim Sypher has not been charged.
Pence wondered why the focus seemed to be on the coach and not Sypher.
“The feeding frenzy seems to be on the coach instead of what this woman has done,” Pence said. “The coach has done nothing illegal.”
It may not matter when it comes to public opinion. His involvement, even indirectly, in an abortion could be difficult to overcome in heavily Catholic Louisville.
Pitino, needing to regain momentum, was back at his office on Wednesday focusing on recruiting.
At least one incoming recruit seemed unfazed by Pitino’s latest setback.
“Yo I ain’t leaving,” incoming freshman Peyton Siva posted on his Twitter account. “Rick(’s) personal life is his life. He’s here to coach me and is the best teach of hoop to me! So like the fans say, ‘Go Cards.”’