Horse Trading

Rick Pitino's horse can really fly! (Horse pictured does not actually belong to Pitino.) Photo courtesy of bbchorseracing.com.

Author Matthew Hughes has written that the fundamental organizing principle of the universe is irony. It often seems that the NCAA also runs on irony, but filthy lucre is clearly the pole star by which the NCAA charts its course.

Of late, the money involved has reached such astronomical levels that it has caused a marked increase in commentary on the idea of amateurism in college sports. The discussion mostly concerns football and men’s basketball, which generate the most revenue.

There is an almost perfect storm of unwanted scrutiny brewing for the NCAA: the debate about stipends for scholarship athletes has been taken up by the universities (if only in an effort to delay the inevitable issue of player compensation); Kentucky stormed to the national basketball championship and then sent most of its team to the NBA before graduation; and relatively unknown Wisconsin basketball player Jared Uthoff made national news when the school limited his choice of destinations after he announced that he would transfer. There is also a pending lawsuit that challenges the NCAA’s use of the likeness and image of players after they have concluded their college careers.

Ed O'Bannon led UCLA to the 1995 NCAA title; he is now the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NCAA. Photo by J.D. Cuban / Getty Images, courtesy of cnnsi.com.

I lack the time and the inclination to go into the problems in college football. Suffice it to say that if the President of the United States takes time out of his schedule to call you out, you have a problem.

All this brings me to the point of this post: Rick Pitino, the head coach of the basketball team at Louisville, apparently counts owning race horses among his hobbies. Pitino recently named two of his race horses after current Cardinal players Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva.

By now it shouldn’t shock anybody that top college coaches are paid huge salaries, but it takes tall paper to gain entry into the class of people who own race horses (plural). So how much is Pitino raking in?

According to USA Today, Pitino received $4,812,769 in total pay this season. His contract also included possible bonuses of up to $575,000. (Check out USA Today’s comprehensive tabulation of Division I men’s basketball coaching salaries here.)

$4.8 million will buy a lot of oats and saddle soap, but 2011-2012 was actually a down year for Pitino.  How could that be when Louisville won this year’s Big East conference tournament and advanced to the Final Four?

According to USA Today, Pitino hauled in a cool $7.5 million last year. Pitino’s compensation in 2010-2011 included a $3.6 million bonus for completing three years of his contract; he will be eligible for another such bonus in 2013.

That’s be enough money to make a person think twice about retiring from coaching in favor of, say, managing a stable of thoroughbreds. I’d like to have a problem like that.

Rick Pitino has been known to wear a white suit on occasion. Do you think he also owns one in money green?

In its 2011 compensation review piece, USA Today attributed the following statement to NCAA president Mark Emmert: “We want to do everything we can to promote competitive equity, but, at the same time, we’re not going to tell universities what they can or can’t pay a coach any more than we tell them what they can or can’t pay a university president.”

Emmert’s comment is tone deaf, but he’s probably right that the NCAA can’t control coaching salaries. On the other hand, this is the same organization that found former Utah coach (and entertaining TV analyst) Rick Majerus in violation of its bylaws because he bought a meal for Keith Van Horn after Van Horn learned that his father had died.

Yes, the NCAA definitely has its priorities in order.

For me, the bottom line is that so long as a university is willing to pay Rick Pitino a boatload of money to run its basketball team, no one can fault Rick Pitino for taking the boatload of money and using it to buy race horses, race cars, or whatever else he may choose. (This is not intended to single out Pitino; other top coaches garner salaries that are equally huge, if not larger. It just happens that Pitino is the only coach I know of who’s aiming for the Kentucky Derby.)

Reasonable minds can disagree about the purpose of college athletics, but would the world end if the NCAA were to admit that at least some portion of the value that Pitino and other coaches add to university athletic departments directly correlates to the abilities of the players whom they recruit? Shouldn’t the guys who actually play the games get a share of the revenue that they generate for their schools?

I would even leave that issue for the Ed O’Bannons of the world to worry about if the NCAA prohibited coaches from receiving bonuses for the performance of their teams (as measured by NCAA tournament appearances and victories). Do we really need a reminder that college basketball is a win-at-all-costs business that is just as cutthroat as any other?

Does Louisville write Pitino's paycheck on one of these?

The performance bonuses also seem to create perverse incentives that the NCAA might want to eliminate. After all, the NCAA can always go back and vacate a university’s national title or Final Four appearance, but it has no chance to take back a coach’s bonus check.

The strongest argument against these bonuses, though, is that they just don’t smell right.

When I was 13 or 14 years old, I went to basketball camp at ODU. Ricardo Leonard, who concluded his ODU career in 1992, was working the camp. In his final season for the Monarchs, Leonard and was the best player and leading scorer on a team that finished just 15-15, but won the CAA tournament and earned a NCAA tournament bid.

(The Monarchs were a 15-seed in the 1992 tourney and lost their first-round game to Kentucky 88-69. Kentucky advanced to the Elite Eight before Christian Laettner and Duke eliminated them. Kentucky’s coach that year? None other than Rick Pitino.)

Back to Ricardo Leonard: I have a vivid recollection of Leonard, who was a camp favorite, showing the other campers and me the watch that he and the other ODU players had received from the NCAA for appearing in the championship tournament. At the time, I thought that the watch was one of the cooler things I’d ever seen, and Leonard was entirely right to be proud of it.

It was a long time ago, but I feel reasonably confident that Leonard’s NCAA watch wasn’t a Rolex; I’m not a jeweler, but it may not have even been a Timex.

Either way, the watch was not worth anywhere close to $575,000.

Update: May 8, 2012

Pitino’s intrastate rival, John Calipari, recently got a raise from the University of Kentucky. After ending the season with a national championship, Kentucky bumped Calipari’s compensation up by 8.3 percent. ESPN.com reports that between base salary, endorsements, and retention bonuses, Calipari will now be paid $5.2 million per year. He is also eligible for annual performance bonuses of up to $875,000.

No word on whether Calipari’s stable of horses will beat Pitino’s twice next year.

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