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Full-Court Press Awaits Pitino at MSG

Oct 20, 2009 – 6:45 PM
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David Steele

David Steele %BloggerTitle%

Rick PitinoRick Pitino's appearance at New York's Madison Square Garden Wednesday will surely be less pleasant than his previous one, when his Louisville team won the Big East tournament championship last March.

In the arena, at the conference's preseason basketball media day, Pitino will almost certainly face another volley of questions about his troubled offseason, this time specifically about his decision not to suspend two starters who tussled with off-duty police at an off-campus party two weekends ago.

In an interview with published four days after the Oct. 11 arrest of Terrence Jennings and Jerry Smith in Jeffersonville, Ind., Pitino said that the two players would be punished internally, "but no, they will not miss any game time.'' His action, or lack thereof, raised questions about whether he still could wield the authority to discipline players, after he was not disciplined at all by the university after his August acknowledgment of a past extramarital affair and its role in a sordid extortion investigation of the ex-wife of one of his staffers.

With both players accepting a plea bargain on Monday in return for probation and community service, the doubts were raised again.

"He has not made any changes in his original decision to deal with the players internally,'' school spokesman Kenny Klein said Tuesday. Klein added that Pitino made his decision after speaking "extensively'' to Jennings and Smith and other witnesses that night and felt he did not need to wait until it went through the court system.

"Coach Pitino has a long history of being a strict disciplinarian with his players,'' Klein said, adding that while the coach likely discussed the punishment with athletic director Tom Jurich, all coaches at Louisville were generally given the discretion to set their own standards for punishment.

Jennings, a sophomore center, and Smith, a senior guard, pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count each of resisting law enforcement, and were each sentenced to one year of probation, 40 hours of community service and a fine of $504 to cover court costs. Prosecutors chose not to follow the arresting officers' recommendation of stiffer charges; the police report stated that Jennings had to be Tasered twice, and that Smith shoved an officer while trying to come to Jennings' aid. Both players apologized to the court at the sentencing.

It was a first offense for both players, and in Pitino's eight seasons as Louisville coach, there is no record of his players' arrests or other entanglements with police. Pitino, however, has suspended players, most recently former center Derrick Caracter, who was sat down at least three different times for multiple games during his two seasons at Louisville before he transferred to Texas-El Paso after the 2007-08 season.

Those suspensions were for numerous team-rules violations, including missed curfews.
Pitino last appeared before a large media gathering Aug. 26, at an impromptu press conference on campus in which he scolded the media for its coverage of him and the scandal, but took no questions. At the program's annual tip-off luncheon in Louisville two weeks ago, Pitino spoke before a crowd of supporters and made reference to the controversy only by mentioning a "negative environment'' he wanted them to ignore.

The irony of two players critical to Louisville's success this season landing in jail just months after Pitino's summer in the spotlight, has not been lost on observers around the sport and around the state of Kentucky; they have filled up message boards and comment sections demanding that the school hold Pitino accountable for the negative light his case had cast on it.

Back in August, after the revelations by Pitino and the accusations of Karen Sypher, Jurich, the athletic director, said in a statement, "I'm a million percent behind him ... I expect Coach Pitino to be the head coach at the University of Louisville for a long time.'' School president Dr. James Ramsey said in his own statement that the incidents "saddened and disappointed me,'' but commended the coach for admitting them.

Amidst an outcry by Pitino supporters and critics, Jurich and Ramsey chose not to punish Pitino in any way.

Louisville's season opener is Nov. 17 in a nationally-televised doubleheader in St. Louis, against Arkansas. (The other game pits Memphis against Kansas.) One of Pitino's former players at Kentucky, John Pelphrey, coaches Arkansas, and last month Pelphrey issued a suspension of undetermined length to one of three players who were questioned, but not charged, in a reported sexual assault in August. Pelphrey justified the action, which included other unspecified punishments to the other players, by saying, "Although the student-athletes involved have been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, we expect Razorback student-athletes to adhere to a higher standard and code of conduct.''
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