(AP)—The first thing to remember about the trial unfolding this week in Louisville is that Rick Pitino is a witness, not a defendant.
The next thing to remember is that Pitino is no saint, either.
Oh, sure, he looks like one on the University of Louisville website, where he was pictured in action earlier this month shaking hands with soldiers returning from Iraq. The troops seemed awfully impressed that Pitino would take a break from sitting in a gym watching potential recruits to welcome them home.
“Coach Pitino is an awesome person for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk and shake hands with our returning soldiers,” Capt. Nathan Leppert, a Louisville graduate, was quoted as saying. “I am proud of his caring and patriotism and that he represents my university and the city of Louisville.”
Pitino will be doing that representing this week on the witness stand in the extortion trial of a woman who claims he raped her. Whether jurors are as impressed with him as the soldiers were may go a long way toward deciding Karen Sypher’s fate.
She may end up going to jail. But he’s not going to get off all that easy, either.
What Pitino did seven years ago in a Louisville restaurant may not have been rape, as Sypher claims. But if nothing else it was a despicable way for a married father of five to act.
Having sex in a restaurant with a woman who isn’t your wife while one of your go-fers makes sure no one interrupts isn’t what community leaders are supposed to do. And it doesn’t show the kind of moral values that parents of 18-year-olds heading off to college want their sons to adopt.
Great coach, perhaps. Great man, no way.
Sypher is hardly a sympathetic figure. She brings plenty of baggage into the courtroom, including the prosecution’s claim in opening arguments that she performed a sexual favor for a friend the day before the friend called Pitino and threatened to expose him.
The fact that those calls were made six years after the encounter at Porcini’s restaurant in Louisville also does nothing to bolster her claim—which both Pitino and the government deny—that the sex was not consensual.
Indeed, a prosecutor told jurors on Monday that they couldn’t believe a word Sypher says about anything.
Still, it didn’t take long for Sypher’s attorney to portray Pitino as a man who wielded so much power in Louisville that he thought he was above the law. And there could be some very uncomfortable moments ahead for Pitino as the trial plays out and he undergoes cross-examination on the witness stand about sordid details of the night in 2003.
He will also surely be asked about the $3,000 he gave Sypher shortly after the encounter, which she claims was for an abortion. And there will be questions about the $10,000 an FBI agent said Pitino funneled from his bonus for winning the Big East tournament to buy her son a car.
Louisville basketball fans better hope Pitino deals with it better than he did when the original allegations surfaced. His self-righteous defense then was that everything was a lie, everything was a fabrication.
If so, there is some fabricating going on on both sides. And it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Pitino as a victim in this.
He was the one, after all, who felt so entitled that he had sex in the booth of a public restaurant with a woman he had just met. He was the one who had his underlings help clean his dirty laundry, the one Sypher’s attorney claimed in opening arguments had an assistant make sure she got an abortion.
Kind of hard for the coach who often has a priest travel with his team to claim the high moral ground on anything after that.
Louisville athletic officials don’t seem terribly concerned about their coach’s predicament, giving the coach a four-year contract extension earlier this year and making sure he got paid a $3.6 million longevity bonus. And Louisville basketball fans for the most part think it is some plot hatched by archrival Kentucky to ruin the program.
A few seasons like the last one, in which Louisville lost in the first round of both the Big East and NCAA tournament, and that could change. And that’s not completely out of the realm of possibility if parents of top recruits are turned off by the coach’s actions and balk at having their sons go to Louisville.
For now, though, the focus is on the trial. It could take up to two weeks to determine Sypher’s fate, but the verdict after just one day was this: Win or lose, it won’t be pretty.
(Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.)