LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CN) – Former Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino sued the university Thursday for $38.7 million, claiming it violated his employment contract when it placed him on administrative leave without the required notice and then fired him without cause.
Pitino, who had coached the Cardinals since 2001, was fired in October, shortly after it was revealed the FBI had Louisville in its sights for corruption and bribery charges related to payments made to high school recruits by coaches and Adidas executives.
The FBI investigation came on the heels of a June decision by the NCAA to sanction Pitino and the University of Louisville for an assistant coach’s hiring of female escorts for player and recruits over a period of several years.
The former coach’s lawsuit – filed in Louisville federal court by lead attorney Stephen Pence with Pence & Whetzel – admits that Pitino is most likely the anonymous “Coach-2” named in the federal complaint United States v. Gatto, which alleged “Adidas paid money through intermediaries to the family of Brian Bowen, who then committed to attend and play basketball for the University of Louisville.”
Pitino denies the accusations, though, and says he “had no part – active, passive, or through willful ignorance – in the conspiracy described in the complaint.”
Thursday’s lawsuit says Pitino was placed on administrative leave two days after the Gatto suit was unsealed, even though the University of Louisville “conducted no independent investigation.”
Pitino claims he was locked out of his office, lost access to his email, and was effectively fired when he was placed on administrative leave.
The former coach says he notified the university it had breached his employment contract on Sept. 29 “by imposing discipline without the requisite notice, and without proper service,” but was told four days later in a letter that it intended to fire him for “just cause.”
Pitino was officially fired on Oct. 16 after a meeting with university officials.
The complaint names the University of Louisville Athletic Association, or ULAA, as the only defendant in the suit, and says it gave eight reasons for the termination of Pitino’s contract, including “disparaging media publicity,” “a major ULAA, ACC, or NCAA rule violation,” and “failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance, academic integrity, and ethical conduct,” among others.
Pitino argues the media publicity from the escort and FBI scandals did not constitute cause for termination under his contract because the coverage did not result from his “willful misconduct,” and says the university has provided no proof to the contrary.
As for a failure to supervise his assistant coaches and “promote an atmosphere of compliance,” the complaint states, “Pitino diligently supervised his staff and insisted on their compliance with the rules.”
“He drilled compliance into his coaches and assistants at every meeting. He met with his coaches and assistants frequently and kept well informed about their activities. He implemented and faithfully adhered to all recommendations … made after the escort matter,” according to the lawsuit.
Pitino says his contract does not hold him “strictly liable for his assistant coaches’ alleged misdeeds,” and that the “ULAA … cannot conclude that there was a failure of diligent supervision just because of subordinates’ misconduct.”
The ULAA also cited Pitino’s alleged failure to cooperate with the FBI investigation in its notice of termination, a charge the former coach disputed in the lawsuit.
“On the contrary,” it says, “Coach Pitino has done everything possible to ensure staff cooperations with investigations, and has voluntarily met with and provided information to FBI agents. … ULAA is in no position to gauge Coach Pitino’s failure to ‘take responsibility’ when it hasn’t communicated with him – except through disciplinary letters and verbal statements – since the complaint was unsealed.”
University of Louisville spokesman John Karman said the school is aware of the lawsuit but does not comment on pending litigation.
Pitino’s attorney Pence said in a statement that his client had no part in any scheme to improperly give benefits to Louisville recruits.
The former coach says he is entitled to annual payments of $4.3 million through 2026, per the liquidated damages provision in his contract, which totals $38.7 million.
He also claims the university’s decision to fire him caused the loss of his endorsement contract with Adidas, which he says was worth a minimum of $1.5 million per year.