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Curry Kirkpatrick
May 29, 1989
Kentucky could have received the death penalty for basketball misdeeds; by cooperating, the Wildcats stayed their execution
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May 29, 1989

Dodging A Bullet

Kentucky could have received the death penalty for basketball misdeeds; by cooperating, the Wildcats stayed their execution

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Since coming aboard last month, Newton has spent more time searching for Sutton's successor than dealing with the NCAA allegations, and little wonder. The Wildcats are hurting more for solid players than at any time since the Rupp regime began. Recruiting has been a disaster for a year. Further, not only are Mills and Manuel gone, but on Monday, junior LeRon Ellis, a 6'11" center, also decided to leave, probably for Syracuse or UNLV.

At the top of Newton's first list of coaching candidates were Pat Riley of the Los Angeles Lakers, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, Lute Olson of Arizona, P.J. Carlesimo of Seton Hall and Pitino. The first two were pies in the sky. Olson was courted by Newton, but their relationship was nipped when Olson signed a fat new contract, after which cynics began referring to him as Loot Olson. Carlesimo was shown some nice numbers—$650,000 per season for four years—on a visit to Lexington, but in the end, the fit wasn't quite right—that brown beard perhaps clashing with the bluegrass? At week's end, only Pitino remained from Newton's original list.

"This state is so down and depressed about everything, if Pitino would sign next week he'd be bigger than Colonel Sanders," says a Lexington businessman. "He could name his price, get anything he wanted, anything."

Which is precisely the kind of atmosphere Newton doesn't need. During the Knicks-Bulls playoff series, the deal seemed done. Pitino loves horse racing and is no stranger to the track. However, last weekend he was vacillating, mainly because his wife, Joanne, had doubts about making the move. The ultimate question is: Would a restless, ambitious fellow with a big-city background—New York, Boston, Providence, Honolulu—have the patience to cope with the country atmosphere of Lexington while his team is dead in the water for two seasons? At this writing, many basketball insiders thought yes.

Newton believes the new coach should be a "name" figure who can galvanize support, rally morale and hold the program together through the lean times ahead. If Pitino turns down the job—after meeting with Knick officials on Saturday, he and Joanne were scheduled to get the full celebrity treatment on Monday and Tuesday in Lexington—Newton could call on his longtime friend and former player at Transylvania in Lexington, Lee Rose, who's now an assistant with the New Jersey Nets. Another alternative would be for Newton to take the job himself, polish the program's image and renew the search for a hotshot in two years. Roselle, who's eager to get his coaches "out of the business of being entrepreneurs," says he will insist that all outside income, including that from hefty shoe endorsements and television and radio shows, be funneled through the university.

Bad as the situation in Lexington may be, it could have been worse. Still, the call-in shows are humming with vilifications of Roselle for giving in, rather than with hosannas for having saved basketball from imminent demise. In January, Roselle said privately that he was taking the biggest gamble any Kentucky president could imagine by cooperating with the NCAA. "If I fail," he said, "no future president will have a chance to do things right."

Instead, thanks to Roselle, the Wildcats have another chance to do things right. One final chance.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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