The band will play on for the University of Louisville’s rudderless ship.
Cheer if you want, as many did when members of the Cardinals’ besieged basketball team were introduced at last weekend’s football game. Rally around a program in midst of a nuclear meltdown. Not surprising. Folks here crave college basketball more than oxygen. But zealotry will give way to reality soon enough.
Patchwork repairs may not be enough to keep the boat from sinking. Most have come to terms with the fact that the Grim Reaper – a.k.a. the NCAA death penalty – may be looming over this program.
But hey! Listen to “This Is It” by Kenny Loggins, the theme song for the Cardinals’ first national championship in 1980. Watch the highlights again from the 2013 NCAA title game. Choose whatever coping mechanism that suits your Darrell Griffith, Pervis Ellison, Russ Smith-loving heart because this going hurt like hell.
Brace yourselves for the most bizarre season in Louisville basketball history. We’ve never seen anything quite like this: a Final Four contending team jettisoning its coach in October with the possibility that the program might get shut down in the near future.
Hear from David Padgett, as he addressed the media after being named the men’s basketball acting head coach this evening. pic.twitter.com/V4KhWlRIaH
— Louisville Athletics (@GoCards) September 30, 2017
No one knows what is going to happen. No one knows how long this is going to take. Sports is about selling hope and even before the first dribble of the regular season, hope may be lost for the Cardinals.
The team has talent and could be the second-best program in the Atlantic Coast Conference behind national championship favorite Duke. The Cardinals look like a preseason Top 10 squad, led by Deng Adel, Ray Spalding and Quentin Snider. But whatever excitement is generated this year will be tempered by ongoing criminal and NCAA investigations. Things could get really awkward if suspended recruit Brian Bowen is reinstated. Bowen is at the center of the FBI’s claim of an improper payment scheme to bring him to Louisville.
Louisville is the first casualty of the Justice Department and FBI’s probe into college basketball’s unsavory world of recruiting and sneaker company influence. Since it’s a continuing investigation, the Cardinals’ likely won’t be the only school in serious trouble. But the impact has already ravaged the university athletic department and threatens the school’s flagship program.
This university leads the nation in interims. There is no permanent basketball coach, no permanent athletic director and no permanent school president. Former assistant and ex-Louisville player David Padgett has been promoted to acting coach. It was a move largely applauded by the locals and local media. Never have there been this many smiles for a hire on a six-month contract.
The appointment is slightly puzzling. Padgett is popular and likable, but we still don’t definitely know if he had any role in the shoe company scandal. He’s a direct link to Rick Pitino — reportedly Coach 2 in the federal criminal complaint. You would think that Louisville might be reluctant to bring in someone with direct ties to the previous administration. But Louisville has a crisis of leadership at this point and it may not matter who’s running this team in the short term.
We’ve seen interim coaches before, but this is an unprecedented moment. It’s hard to predict what will come of this season. Padgett has no previous coaching experience and how can you assess how the players will respond to playing for a program in trouble. Everyone says they’re on board but how many of these players will stay for the season or be back next season? Would they want to be back?
Padgett’s job is simple, but the task unenviable: guide this team through the 2017-18 season. He’ll try to ignore a ticking time bomb that may reduce the program to rubble.
The Cardinals, for all the drama over the past few years, had enjoyed steady leadership. Denny Crum coached the team from 1971 to 2001, leading the team to championships in 1980 and 1986. He was (probably) ushered out the door by athletic director Tom Jurich when the program lost momentum. Jurich then scored a major coup by hiring Pitino, the architect of the rebirth of the University of Kentucky’s basketball program after its own scandal. Pitino’s 1996 national title squad is regarded as one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time.
At Louisville, Pitino worked his magic again. He restored the Cardinals and the program won the 2013 national championship. It’s an interesting twist of fate that the man who revived Kentucky from scandal is exiting Louisville in shame.
The Cardinals have enjoyed decades of high-profile leadership. Coaching luminaries are hard to get and keep long-term. And now, Louisville is being run by a novice. Maybe someday Padgett will emerge as the next great from the Pitino coaching tree. But there seems to be virtually zero chance that he will remain in charge at Louisville past this season.
Louisville has not received any additional notice of allegations from the NCAA yet. The NCAA is likely to wait until the Justice Department and FBI finish up and then examine their evidence and levy out any punishment. Will this result in the death penalty? The NCAA has not used that nuclear option for a major sports program since SMU football was shut down for one season in 1987. It seems unlikely the NCAA would do this despite Louisville’s repeated troubles. The Cardinals have already removed Pitino and Jurich and that could be enough to save the program from the strictest punishment. NCAA sanctions like another postseason ban and lost scholarships seem probable.
For now, the games will go on. Expect big crowds. Louisville was third in the nation in home attendance at 20,846 per game. Expect great defense. The Cardinals were eighth in the country in defensive efficiency. Expect this team – as long it avoids another NCAA bombshell – to have a good season.
Just don’t expect joy in Louisville when the season is over. “One Shining Moment” will be replaced by “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
That was allegedly the last song the band on the Titanic played before the ship sank.