Pitino focused on upcoming season

Updated: October 23, 2009, 12:35 AM ET
Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rick Pitino has been through the gauntlet before.

After three decades of pacing the sidelines the Louisville Cardinals coach has developed some pretty thick skin. He'll need it following the most tumultuous offseason of his career.

Pitino's admission this summer of a sexual encounter six years ago with a woman charged with trying to extort millions from him made national headlines and provided plenty of fodder for opposing fans.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeRick Pitino, who admitted to a sexual encounter six years ago with a woman charged with trying to extort him, says he's ready for what the upcoming season will bring.

The only men's coach to lead three different schools to the Final Four knows life will be difficult when the Cardinals play away from Freedom Hall, not that he is concerned about it.

"When I coached at Kentucky, I was Darth Vader in every arena," Pitino said. "They hung me in effigy in Starkville [Miss]. So do you think I'm going to face anything I haven't faced before? When you coach at Kentucky, you're hated by everybody."

Maybe, but this season could provide a challenge unlike any he's faced before.

The cheers had barely died down following Louisville's remarkable 2008-09 season when the problems began. Three weeks after the Cardinals fell to Michigan State in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament, the married father of five said he was the victim of an extortion attempt by the wife of the team's equipment manager and was working with federal authorities.

The scandal played out much of the summer, leading to Pitino's admission that he had a sexual encounter with Karen Cunagin Sypher at a Louisville restaurant in 2003. He issued a public apology in August and university president James Ramsey and athletic director Tom Jurich pledged their support to the coach who resurrected the program after Denny Crum's retirement in 2001.

The tawdry facts around the case -- Cunagin Sypher claimed Pitino gave her money for an abortion, the coach said it was for health insurance, she later married Louisville's equipment manager Tim Sypher -- fueled talk that Pitino may step down.

Instead, Pitino said the thought of resigning after eight seasons "never crossed" his mind. He only spoke with his players about his situation once, telling them he had no intention of leaving.

"He told us that he wasn't going nowhere and that he was going to be our coach and we don't have anything to worry about," said senior guard Edgar Sosa.

The case remains in limbo as U.S. District Judge John Kuhn weighs a motion by prosecutors seeking a mental evaluation for Cunagin Sypher. Kuhn said the case is "complex" and it's unknown when -- or even if -- it could reach trial.

Pitino stressed he's trying to focus on leading the Cardinals to another Big East championship.

It won't be easy. Louisville lost forwards Terrence Williams and Earl Clark to the NBA and it could take awhile for new leaders to emerge.

And Pitino isn't the only member of the team to run into offseason trouble. Guard Jerry Smith and forward Terrence Jennings were arrested earlier this month following an altercation with police outside a southern Indiana restaurant. They pleaded guilty on Monday to a misdemeanor charge of resisting law enforcement and were sentenced to one year of probation, 40 hours of community service and $500 in fines.

Pitino chose not to suspend either player, saying that would be allowing them to get off easy. Instead he is handling the matter internally, joking that the punishment the players are enduring would be considered illegal in some prisons.

The atmosphere in opposing gyms might not be much friendlier, a prospect the players have grown accustomed to during their careers. Sosa said Pitino's off-the-court problems are none of his business, and he's not worried about it affecting the team when they're on the floor.

"At the end of the day we've got to go there and win the game," Sosa said. "What you have going on personally you know, when you go to these away games doesn't really matter because it's all going to go down on the court. People are going to do things and say things when we're on the road but that's just going to bring us closer and make us want to pull out that win even more."

Asked if he's concerned about his players acting out in his defense if they think a fan crosses the line, Pitino shook his head.

"If they want to protect their coach, go out and kick [butt]," he said.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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