Untangling the powerful web surrounding Louisville's Rick Pitino
Rick Pitino has a number of extremely loyal friends in and around Louisville
Karen Sypher is married to Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher
Louisville president James Ramsey expressed support, calling Pitino 'our guy'
Stationed at the border of Rick Pitino's inner circle, Vinny Tatum is what you might call a gatekeeper.
At his press conference Wednesday, Pitino made no mention of Tatum, of course. The legendary coach spent his time admonishing the media and brushing off the past, calling "everything that has been printed and reported ... a total fabrication." Lies, that is, except for one thing: what he had told us about "the mistake that [he] made." Incidentally, that is precisely where Tatum comes in.
A former student manager under Pitino at the University of Kentucky, Tatum, 34, has worked as the coach's executive assistant for six years and holds the title of "director of the Yum! Center," the two-year-old edifice where Louisville's basketball offices are housed. The native of Harrodsburg, Ky., coordinates Pitino's personal schedule, occasionally serves as his boss' designated driver, determines travel arrangements, and is the point-man whom corporate giants -- Microsoft, for instance -- must contact if they wish to hear Pitino wax poetic on success and "group integrity."
But Tatum is also familiar with gatekeeping of a more literal kind. On the evening of Aug. 1, 2003, he was reportedly the only other person inside Porcini, an upscale Louisville Italian restaurant, as Pitino (married, Catholic, a father of five) had unprotected sex with Karen Cunagin (then a divorced, 43-year-old mother of four and a former model/auto glass saleswoman) at a table by the bar. Porcini's owner, Tim Coury, had entrusted the place to Pitino, his friend, after closing for the night. Pitino says he and Cunagin were both drunk -- he'd been celebrating the hiring of new assistant Reggie Theus -- and that the sex was consensual; Cunagin (now Karen Sypher) alleged she was raped. Authorities have since declined to prosecute the case, citing insufficient evidence.
So Tatum watched the door for his boss, but he did not quite stand guard -- he had actually "lain down out of site [sic] of [Pitino] and Sypher," according to the police report. As part of an investigation into Sypher's eventual alleged extortion of Pitino this year, Tatum would also tell the FBI that he heard "the sounds of two people that seemed to be enjoying themselves during a sexual encounter."
Such details are both lewd and horribly ironic. Yet the involvement of a trusted associate like Tatum is not just some seamy footnote to the incident which now hangs over the Louisville campus like so many "Welcome Students!" banners. In fact, when I visited in the wake of the scandal to report a story for Sports Illustrated, the vigilant network of subordinates that surround Pitino struck me as even more intriguing than the adultery itself. Although Pitino's preferred press conference phrase was "an indiscretion six years ago" -- an attempt to shrink the mess down to one moment of weakness -- the epically bizarre aftermath hints at how a charismatic leader and his cronies operate behind closed doors.
"Don't forget the spousal equation. If you hire someone who comes with an egomaniacal husband or a moody wife, it will have an effect on your worker's productivity. Get to know them, too."
-- Rick Pitino, Rebound Rules (2008), pg. 169
On the afternoon of Aug. 13, 2009, in Room 402B of Louisville family court, Cardinals equipment manager Tim Sypher sat on the stand before Judge Hugh Smith Haynie and his ex-wife, Karen, explaining just how much he owed to Rick Pitino.
With custody of his and Karen's four-year-old daughter, Anabelle, hanging in the balance, Tim had been asked to specify his employment history. For 10 years, he said, he'd been a private investigator in his home state of Massachusetts (earning an average of $30,000-$35,000 annually). He -- like Vinny Tatum -- would then become a personal assistant to Pitino (making about $40,000 a year), completing quotidian administrative tasks like delivering messages while Pitino was president and coach of the Boston Celtics. In 2000, Pitino brought Tim to Louisville to be the basketball team's equipment manager, where he's remained ever since (currently making $77,000 plus bonuses).
Although Tim claimed at the hearing that he was broke (to quote his lawyer, "there are no assets to fight over in this case"), he also testified that he had recently obtained a 2008 Toyota Tundra from a Toyota of Nicholasville outlet -- one co-owned, as it happens, by a three-man team: Pitino, ex-NBA player Jamal Mashburn (who starred under Pitino at Kentucky), and Rick Avare, a Lexington, Ky., businessman who doubled as Pitino's business manager. Tim's legal team had also "volunteered," he said, to represent him in the proceedings at absolutely no cost.
To those who know the men, Sypher's reliance on Pitino goes deeper. One day, during the 1999-2000 NBA season, the Boston Herald ran a poll asking if Pitino should be fired as Celtics coach. Pitino's first reaction was to wonder, "Why would someone do that?" His second -- according to his own book, Lead to Succeed: 10 Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life -- was, "What would Tim Sypher ... do if I were fired?"