Pitino's reputation sullied by admitted affair

LOUISVILLE, KY Pitino took Kentucky to a national title in 1996 and is still revered in Lexington, even after jilting the Wildcats for the Boston Celtics 12 years ago, then moving on to Louisville, Kentucky's bitter rival.

He is a larger-than-life figure with his designer wardrobe, Italian dress shoes, best-selling books and -- critically -- his remarkable on-court success.

Now the beloved coach faces his greatest challenge -- saving his career and reputation in the face of a salacious scandal.

Pitino's admission to police that he had a sexual encounter six years ago with a woman later charged with trying to extort $10 million from him has put the charismatic coach whose teams are known for their relentlessly attacking style on the defensive.

Pitino told police last month he had consensual sex with Karen Cunagin Sypher at a Louisville restaurant in 2003. They met again several weeks later, when he says she revealed she was pregnant and planned to have an abortion, but did not have health insurance.

When the married father of five asked Sypher how much money she needed for insurance, she said $3,000, which Pitino gave her. Pitino's attorney, Steve Pence, said Pitino did not think the money was for an abortion.

"The coach believed that the money was for insurance, that's what she said it was for and that's the way his report reads," Pence said.

Pence called any speculation that Pitino would step down "ridiculous" and wondered why the focus seemed to be on the coach and not Sypher, who faces charges of extortion and lying to the FBI for allegedly trying to get Pitino to give her $10 million to remain quiet.

"The feeding frenzy seems to be on the coach instead of what this woman has done," Pence said. "The coach has done nothing illegal."

It may not matter in the court of public opinion.

Pitino is a devout Roman Catholic who does little to hide his faith. Longtime friend and adviser Father Edward Bradley is a fixture near the Louisville bench and often leads the team in pregame prayer.

The fallout from having been involved -- even indirectly -- in an abortion could be difficult for Pitino to overcome in heavily Catholic Louisville.

Pitino signed a three-year contract extension in 2007 that would keep him on the sideline until 2013. The contract includes a pair of hefty loyalty bonuses, though now it's unclear if Pitino will be around to collect them.

The contract includes several provisions that give the university grounds to fire Pitino for just cause for conduct that reflects poorly on the school.

The contract lists as possible causes for termination: "Employee's dishonesty with Employer or University; or acts of moral depravity," as well as "disparaging media publicity of a material nature that damages the good name and reputation of Employer or University."

School officials appear to be in no hurry to address Pitino's future.

University president James Ramsey said on Tuesday he was "surprised" by recent developments, then declined further comment until meeting with athletic director Tom Jurich.

Jurich was not available Wednesday, but told The Associated Press recently that he wasn't certain Pitino would finish his career with the Cardinals.

"That's something I can't predict, I hope so," Jurich said. "I hope he enjoys it here. I think he does. But this has got to be a very trying time for him, too."

A trying time that seemed to start shortly after the Cardinals ended their season with a loss to Michigan State in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament.

Pitino's son Richard, an assistant coach under his father the last two years, left to take a job at Florida shortly after the season ended. In May, Pitino fended off rumors that he was interested in leaving Louisville to coach the NBA's Sacramento Kings.

He filled the hole in his staff left by his son's departure by luring longtime friend Ralph Willard away from Holy Cross. Pitino gave Willard the title of "associate head coach," a move that led to speculation Willard would oversee the program while Pitino took time off.

"I'm going to be a coach here until I retire," he said during Willard's introductory press conference in June. "There's no truth to the Sacramento Kings, no truth to any speculation at all. Very little truth, period, has been said in this town in a long time and the truth will be told at a certain time."

With his version of the truth out, Pitino must find a way to regain momentum.

He was back at his office on Wednesday focusing on recruiting, though sports information director Kenny Klein directed all inquiries to Pence.

At least one incoming recruit seemed unfazed by Pitino's latest setback.

"Yo I ain't leaving," incoming freshman Peyton Siva posted on his Twitter account. "Rick('s) personal life is his life. He's here to coach me and is the best teach of hoop to me! So like the fans say, 'Go Cards."'

Not everyone was so sure Pitino will be back.

Dwight Lacy, 20, a Louisville native and a broadcast journalism major at the University of Kentucky, said he's not sure if Pitino can survive the latest setback to his reputation.

"What are we going to do now?" he said. "I could understand if he got fired. I don't want him to get fired because he is a good coach, but he got involved in some not so honorable actions. You have to compare your love of the game with the love of your morals."

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