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October 23, 2017

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

Rick Pitino turned down UNLV job in 2001 — but what if he hadn’t?

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Timothy D. Easley / AP

In this Oct. 20, 2016, file photo, Louisville coach Rick Pitino reacts to a question during an NCAA college basketball press conference in Louisville, Ky.

Rick Pitino could have been the UNLV basketball coach. He was in Las Vegas on a visit. So was his wife.

But the courtship soured when university officials dropped off Mrs. Pitino curbside at McCarran International Airport instead of escorting her inside.

That led Pitino to pick Louisville, where he won the 2013 national championship and reached three Final Fours before being fired Wednesday on the heels of a FBI investigation into fraud and corruption in recruiting.

You hate to see anyone lose his job, but there is much satisfaction for us in Las Vegas because of how his flirtation with UNLV ended. He had no intentions of coming here, but he was savvy enough to use the courting as leverage for more compensation from Louisville.

UNLV settled for Charlie Spoonhour and a few years later landed Lon Kruger, who led the Rebels to their first Sweet 16 since the Jerry Tarkanian days and raised funds for the Mendenhall Center. He made UNLV relevant again.

Knowing what we now know about Pitino — the recruiting trips involving escorts, his marital infidelity, and the most recent allegations of criminal activity in bribing players — it’s easy to say the Rebels were better off with Spoonhour, Kruger, Dave Rice and now Marvin Menzies.

But are they?

Would you trade the six NCAA Tournament appearances and three tournament wins since 2001, when Pitino briefly looked at UNLV, for the thrill of a national championship run? How about three Final Fours?

Now, answer the same questions with one gigantic asterisk. The NCAA could strip Louisville of the 2013 championship as part of its punishment — a punishment, of course, that will set the program back years, if not longer.

Would you take the championships, wins and memories if they were vacated? No new championship banners at the Thomas & Mack Center or lines in record books, but you could keep the shirt you purchased documenting the tainted title.

Let’s be honest: Many would take the wins and deal later with the punishments.

But now the bigger question — could Pitino have won here? Could he have recruited the high-end players needed to compete on a national stage when there wasn’t much at the time to offer at UNLV. The Mountain West Conference was still getting established and its games weren’t readily available on television. We all remember the Mtn, right?

More important, could Pitino run a program without being caught for breaking the rules? After all, we lead the nation in readily available escorts. His first top-5 recruiting class would have been met with claims of breaking the rules, opening the door for unwanted eyes from the NCAA on the program.

And the NCAA has always gone out of its way to police UNLV basketball, especially in 2001 after coach Bill Bayno’s fallout ignited by infractions.

It didn’t take this week’s news to cement claims that Pitino operated with low moral standards. It didn’t take this week’s news for Las Vegans to realize UNLV was better off without him as the Rebels’ coach.

Pitino would have won here — he’s won at nearly every college stop in his career. While it’s fun to think what could have been, that’s not a cue to be unrealistic.

Pitino was never coming to UNLV. And even if he did, there was no guarantee he would have led the Rebels to a Final Four. Those days, regardless of who is coaching, could be long gone.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21

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