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Firing of O'Brien a shock given his track record

SPECIAL TO ESPN.COM

June 10, 2004
I was shocked and stunned to learn of Ohio State's decision to fire Jim O'Brien. If there's one head coach who has been considered Mr. Integrity over his 28 years of coaching -- from being an assistant at Connecticut to his head-coaching stints at St. Bonaventure, Boston College and Ohio State -- it's O'Brien.

Jim O'Brien
Jim O'Brien coached Ohio State to the 1999 Final Four, where the Buckeyes lost to eventual national champion Connecticut.
During those 28 years, there has never been a hint of impropriety. Anyone who knows him feels that he's as honest as they come. He's a class guy in the coaching fraternity, and that's why I was shocked to hear of his dismissal.

I was even more surprised when I heard the reason -- that he admitted he gave $6,000 to a youngster from overseas in the recruiting process. It blows my mind.

You can't condone the fact that he gave the player's family that money, no matter what the reason. While it may have been a humanitarian gesture, it was wrong. He violated the rules, his trust and his contract. A punishment for those actions was necessary.

But considering his entire resumé, my first glance at the allegations tells me O'Brien should have been given a chance to explain.

Perhaps he should have been suspended. Or maybe other punishments would have been appropriate, like a loss of a scholarships or a penalty that would not allow him to recruit off-campus for an extended period.

My understanding is that O'Brien went to Barton Community College to visit Aleksandar Radojevic after he had committed to Ohio State. That same day, the youngster learned his father had died. The player's mom was back in Croatia where she lived, and Radenovic was in a chaotic state. The family was struggling financially.

O'Brien showed he had a heart and offered to loan the player $6,000 on the condition that when he became an NBA first-rounder, he would repay the loan. It was not a gift.

Was it right? No. Should he have made that offer? No. But if you check O'Brien's coaching track record and look at the situation objectively, I wonder if his firing was warranted.

A reprimand or suspension seemed to be the best way to go. Then again, there may be more to this story as more allegations surface from a lawsuit and deposition from a woman named Kathleen Salyers.

She reportedly had been asked to provide housing for Ohio State guard Boban Savovic for $1,000 a month plus expenses. Salyers has also claimed that O'Brien and Ohio State assistant coach Paul Biancardi knew Savovic accumulated more than $10,000 in international long distance charges on a telephone credit card. We'll have to wait and see if any of these other allegations are proven to be accurate. If so, that changes the O'Brien scenario dramatically.

A reprimand or suspension seemed to be the best way to go.
Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger was in a tough position. He had enough bad publicity in the past year regarding the situation surrounding former Buckeyes running back Maurice Clarett. Then Geiger had to deal with this situation and he did so swiftly.

College basketball lost a quality guy when O'Brien was fired. It just shows the temptation and the pressure these days. It also shows that a coach had a heart bigger than it should have been.

I can't emphasize enough that his actions were wrong. It's sad and it's a shame, because anyone who knows O'Brien says only positive things about him. It's difficult to understand this scenario leading to the end of his career at Ohio State, all because he reached out and tried to help a kid six years ago.

Dick Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons and the University of Detroit in the 1970s before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979 (he has been an ESPN analyst ever since). Send a question for Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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