LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Tuesday, April 9, 2013, was a day of unbridled joy in this city – maybe collectively the happiest I’ve seen people in 30 years living here.
Red-and-black car flags were everywhere. Brand-new championship T-shirts covered puffed-out chests. Smiles spread across faces all around town. The communal giddiness was palpable.
The night before in Atlanta, Louisville basketball got back into the championship game and took it all. A fan base that for generations has lived and died with the Cardinals was on top of the world. They had won their third national title, 27 years after the last one, and many years after some people said it could never happen again at an urban school.
Thursday, four years and two months later, that fan base has been flattened by an unprecedented penalty handed down by the NCAA. The worst fear that sprang from the tawdry story Yahoo Sports broke in October 2015 has come to fruition.
For the first time, the NCAA has vacated a Division I men’s basketball national championship. Not yet officially, because the NCAA is such an obtuse, protocol-shackled organization that it is waiting for Louisville to send in the names of players who received impermissible benefits – stripper shows and sex acts paid for by former staffer Andre McGee, one of the most embarrassing scandals in a sport that routinely wallows in corruption.
Once the names of the involved players have been formally submitted and formally received, and the box scores have been checked – something that unofficially has already happened both here and at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis – they can declare the title vacated. And then Louisville can appeal and we can wait a few more months.
But the writing is on the wall and banner is in the air for just a short while longer, unless the appeal is won.
“We are devastated by the news,” said coach Rick Pitino, himself facing a five-game suspension during Atlantic Coast Conference play next season for a failure to monitor McGee.
Devastation seems like an apt descriptor.
Just don’t take the banner.
That was the refrain I heard repeatedly after the first seedy story broke. Probation? Fine. Scholarship reductions? OK. Everyone, even Pitino himself, was deemed more expendable to many fans than the cloth hanging in the Yum Center.
It is mere symbolism, that banner. Many fans will still cling to the fact that the Cardinals won the games on the court. But the symbolism is powerful, and so is the gut punch that comes with making the worst kind of NCAA history.
Keeping that championship intact was a major reason why the school self-imposed a postseason ban in 2015-16, taking a very competitive team out of ACC and NCAA play. When the news came back Thursday that, sorry, it wasn’t enough, the Louisville leadership was stunned and angry.
And the leadership at other schools nationally should be on high alert. Especially in Chapel Hill, N.C.
They might as well start unclipping the fasteners holding North Carolina’s basketball banners aloft in the Dean Dome for the 2005 and ’09 national titles. Both of those were compromised by academic fraud, even though the school has been tenaciously rebutting the NCAA’s jurisdiction to even apply sanctions in the case.
When that laborious case finally makes its way to the Committee on Infractions, you can bet North Carolina will have an increased level of awareness and trepidation after seeing what happened to Louisville. Because as much as StripperGate merited a harsh NCAA response, it still took something of an extra effort from the committee to apply it.
COI chief hearing office Carol Cartwright said in her teleconference remarks Thursday, “I don’t believe the Committee on Infractions has ever encountered a case like that.” With that as backdrop, she alluded to a requirement for McGee to “act with honor and dignity,” which is basically invoking a morals clause that probably cannot be found anywhere in the very thick NCAA rules manual.
Fact is, the committee was going to go hard at Louisville – above and beyond the dollar figure of the “impermissible benefits” – because the committee was appalled by the nature of the violations. And given what transpired, including having sex shows for underage recruits, it’s hard to fault the outrage. Cartwright used the word “repugnant” to describe the violations, which is not normally a word in the NCAA lexicon. But if Louisville is turning recruiting into sex trade in a campus dorm and a staff member is orchestrating it, prepare for blowback.
“Without dispute, NCAA rules do not allow institutional staff members to arrange for stripteases and sex acts for prospects, enrolled student-athletes and/or those who accompany them to campus,” Cartwright said.
What this should also say to North Carolina – and perhaps to Baylor – is that this committee, at least, was willing to construct a punishment that arguably goes beyond the letter of the bylaw to fit a general distaste for the nature of the infraction. If that’s the case with Louisville, what might the COI do with 18 years of self-acknowledged academic fraud at Carolina and multiple cases of sexual assault at Baylor?
If the NCAA can prove a violation, does it break out the sanction sledgehammers?
The Bears have no football national titles to strip, but the Tar Heels sure do in basketball. Given the increasingly contentious nature of that case, as Carolina has taken a defiant stance against the NCAA infractions staff, you have to wonder if the Louisville ruling has a ripple effect that will reach the Heels. The makeup of that committee could itself provide a clue, if any of the seven members who heard the Louisville case are also on the North Carolina hearing.
While the rest of the nation is on notice, in Louisville they are on their heels. Pitino sounded a defiant tone regarding his personal reputation and coaching tenure, declaring, “I plan on staying here and winning multiple championships, not just one. I plan on going to multiple Final Fours, not just one.”
Sounds strong, but in the here and now the titles won and Final Fours attended in 2012 and ’13 are going, going, likely gone. And that is a heavy blow to a fan base that was so giddy four years ago.