Pitino image to suffer

Updated: August 19, 2009, 5:52 PM ET
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rick Pitino calls it "branding," and for the last three decades the Louisville coach has carefully crafted the public persona of a winner.

For years, Pitino's brand has been among the best-selling in college sports, and he's channeled achievements on the court -- five Final Fours, 552 wins and a national title at Kentucky in 1996 -- into a lucrative business off it.

Pitino has co-authored three motivational guides and become a sought-after public speaker while endorsing products from fast food to video games. Longtime friend and popular local radio talk show host Terry Meiners has called the coach one of Louisville's "Fortune 500" companies.

It's unclear, however, what kind of a hit Pitino's brand will take following his very public apology last week for an "indiscretion" at a Louisville restaurant six years ago with a woman later accused of trying to extort millions from him.

His job appears safe after his employers at the university backed him in the days since. His reputation, though, could be a harder sell.

He acknowledged to police that he had sex with Karen Cunagin Sypher and gave her $3,000 after she said she was getting an abortion and didn't have health insurance. His lawyer has said the money was for insurance, not an abortion.

Pitino's attorney has stressed Pitino is not the one on trial -- Sypher has pleaded not guilty to charges of extortion and lying to the FBI. But the fallout has placed Pitino's reputation at a crossroads.

"In terms of repairing his image, it's going to be a very long haul," said Kathleen Hessert, president and founder of Sports Media Challenge. "Can he do it? Absolutely ... but he's created a huge well of good will and much of that has been drained."

Hessert worked closely with former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy after pictures surfaced of Eustachy partying with young women. Though he broke no laws, Eustachy resigned in 2003 and received a contract settlement with the school, eventually moving on to Southern Mississippi.

Pitino faces no such banishment for his actions even though there is a clause in his contract that gives the university grounds to dismiss him for things like "acts of moral depravity."

He's pledged to coach the Cardinals "as long as they'll have me" and received endorsements from university president James Ramsey and athletic director Tom Jurich. While some wonder if Pitino is receiving preferential treatment, experts argue he's simply receiving the benefit of the doubt.

"He's different from a lot of other individuals because he has a strong track record as being a great contributor to the school and the community," said Gene Grabowski, a senior vice president with Washington-based Levick Strategic Communications. "He has a solid base of support that he's built up over the years."

Ramsey went so far as to call Pitino "our guy" a day after Pitino's mea culpa, though the president wrote in an e-mail to university faculty and staff that he considered many options on how to discipline Pitino before telling the coach he "needed" to apologize.

For a figure trying to restore the public's faith after a fall from grace, having the president acknowledge he urged the coach to come forward doesn't look good.

"We love apologies, we want to give our winning coaches and athletes second and third chances," Hessert said. "But we've got to at least feel that it's genuine. What came across with all that was 'I did it because I had to keep my job."

It's also the job Pitino needs to worry about first, Grabowski said.

"He needs to focus on coaching and not be seen overexplaining or on a tour or trying to do anything that's outside the realm of a basketball coach right now," he said. "He needs to get back to the basics that gave him the foundation that he has."

Pitino will keep at least one high-profile speaking engagement next month during a motivational seminar in Louisville that is billed as including speeches from Laura Bush, Colin Powell, Rudy Giuliani and televangelist Dr. Robert Schuller.

Pitino remained on the speaker list as of Wednesday said Mary Kate Smith, a spokeswoman for Get Motivated seminars, and was featured in a newspaper ad for the event on Tuesday.

Hessert's advice to Pitino: keep the public events to a minimum and consider changing the message.

"He can't talk about the old things with the same credibility," she said. "He has to take a new approach and use every ounce of charisma and speaking ability he has to get the audience to believe in those situations."

Over the years, Pitino has published three motivational books -- the latest of which "Rebound Rules: The Art of Success 2.0" was released last fall.

Pitino has remained out of sight since his apology, spending the last week preparing to welcome the team's four incoming freshmen to the program when school begins on Aug. 24 while mapping out his recruiting plan for 2009-10, according to sports information director Kenny Klein.

The impact of the scandal on the recruiting trail appears to be minimal, at least so far. There have been no defections among the freshman class, and players who have verbally committed to the Cardinals in 2010 and 2011 remain steadfast in their decision.

That doesn't mean things couldn't change. There is no date set for Sypher's criminal trial, and divorce proceedings between Karen and Tim Sypher -- Louisville's equipment manager who married Karen Sypher less than a year after her encounter with Pitino -- could drag into the middle of basketball season.

"That's the real danger in him coming out and making a statement," said Donald Gross, chairman of political science at the University of Kentucky. "If there seems to be more than he let on, it's going to start all over again ... But if he can keep the support of the president and the AD and keeps winning, probably over time it blows over."

Maybe in the end, the best advice for Pitino could come from the last page of "Rebound Rules."

"Don't delude yourself into believing that every final act must end with you finishing at an all-time high," it says. "Not everyone goes out on top. Going out happy and fulfilled is more important."


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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