Successfully coaching any sport at any level requires a talent for managing players, but many of the country’s best college basketball coaches are particularly renowned control freaks. They must ensure that their athletes get decent grades. During games their chairs seem ornamental, so often are they on their feet, and they rarely allow their squads a single offensive possession without specifically instructing the point guard on how to run it.
Rick Pitino is no exception. He paces along the sideline, shouts out open men on the opposing team, calls out plays. In between, he crosses his arms and stands bolt upright, like a computer scientist confident he has just entered a line of unimpeachable code.
Pitino struggled in brief forays in the N.B.A., but he has reached the Final Four with three college teams and has won national titles at his last two stops, Kentucky and Louisville. That level of control over players seems to fit him as well as his pinstripe suits do.
Yet it is Pitino’s position — as well as that of the University of Louisville, where he enters his 16th season as coach — that he was not and should not be blamed for having been unaware that one of his staff members was spending thousands of dollars on stripteases and sex for more than a dozen Cardinals recruits and players over more than three years in a campus dormitory named for Pitino’s late and beloved brother-in-law.
That scandal, first revealed a year ago in a book by a woman who said she was the escort service employee whom the staff member — a former player of Pitino’s named Andre McGee — solicited, has now reached the stage of N.C.A.A. charges, with Louisville on Thursday releasing the notice of allegations it has received in the case.
The N.C.A.A. has charged that Pitino, who has said he had no knowledge of McGee’s actions, “failed to frequently spot-check the program to uncover potential or existing compliance problems, including actively looking for and evaluating red flags, asking pointed questions and regularly soliciting honest feedback.”
Pitino denied that charge Thursday, saying, “I over-monitor my staff.”
Still, the charges could result in further sanctions on both the university, which self-imposed recruiting restrictions and a postseason ban last season, and on Pitino.
“The ethical conduct charge against the head coach, that’s pretty egregious,” said Tyrone Thomas, an attorney at Mintz Levin who has advised colleges in N.C.A.A. cases.
Referring to a suspension of at least a season, he added, “I would have concerns about the possibility of an extended show-cause period.”
Future supplemental charges against the university, Thomas said, could include the vacating of some of Louisville’s postseason accomplishments, which might ensnare the Cardinals’ national title from 2013, the program’s third.
Louisville signaled Thursday that it will fight any action against Pitino, releasing a response expressing sorrow about the scandal’s bad actors but defiance concerning the Cardinals’ Hall of Fame coach, whom it pays $5 million a year under a contract it recently extended through 2026.
“The N.O.A. does not contain an allegation that Coach Pitino had knowledge of what took place in the dormitory,” said the statement from Louisville’s acting president, Neville Pinto, and athletic director, Tom Jurich.
They added: “The N.O.A. does contain a narrower allegation — which we will dispute — that Coach Pitino failed to demonstrate that he monitored Mr. McGee.”
Shock, investigation, self-flagellation, expiation. “This follows the arc of every scandal,” said Richard Southall, who directs the University of South Carolina’s College Sport Research Institute and studies sports ethics. The final act, Southall said, looks like this: “They’re going to stick up for the million-dollar coach.”
Louisville and its fans, many of them denizens of a city that perennially posts college basketball’s highest television ratings, are eager for the scandal to recede, particularly after last year’s team, ranked 14th at the end of the regular season, did not get to play in the conference or N.C.A.A. tournaments.
Perhaps most of all, though, they do not want to lose Pitino. In this era of college basketball, there are many programs that invest resources; cachet does not go very far; and recruiting is nationalized. The greatest advantage a program can give itself is a top-notch head coach. With Pitino, Louisville has such a coach.
It is not the N.C.A.A.’s job, Southall noted, to assess the scandal’s lurid quality. It only worries about areas of morality it deems itself positioned to regulate. Cash for illegal sex work provided to teenagers may as well be cash for gas. Either constitutes “impermissible benefits” and “inducements” — an unfair advantage, as though the Cardinals had greased their opponents’ rims before a game.
From the perspective of college sports, Southall added, any scandal involving academic fraud, such as the years of paper classes disproportionally for athletes at the University of North Carolina, might be worse, striking as it does at the soul of college sports’ stated mission, which is athletics as a part of education.
But maybe there are other ethics systems worth considering? One is permitted to think this tawdry conduct was inappropriate beyond the fact that it enticed prospects to Louisville in a way that Wake Forest may not have. And one is permitted to think a college basketball coach is bound by more than just the N.C.A.A. handbook.