COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State, awaiting a decision on
possible penalties for NCAA rules violations under former
basketball coach Jim O'Brien, could have to pay him millions of
dollars for firing him under a judge's ruling Wednesday.
O'Brien claimed the university improperly fired him in June 2004
for loaning $6,000 of his own money to a recruit.
Ohio Court of Claims Judge Joseph T. Clark ruled O'Brien broke
his contract by giving the loan and failing to inform university
officials, but the error was not serious enough to warrant firing.
The university violated the contract by firing him without
compensation, the ruling said.
The 55-year-old O'Brien sued for $3.5 million in lost wages and
benefits. The award, which could reach nearly $9.5 million with
interest and other damages, will be determined after another
In a statement, Ohio State vice president and general counsel Christopher M. Culley responded to the ruling:
"... The court decided that the coach's breach of trust did not warrant his dismissal. The university respectfully disagrees with that view. The next step in this process is phase two of the trial, on the issue of damages. The court's present decision will not be subject to appeal until that phase has been completed."
O'Brien said he was pleased with the decision, but disappointed
in the way the dispute had to be settled.
"As much as it's a nice outcome for me, I still don't really
feel that there are any real winners in this thing," O'Brien said.
The NCAA is expected to decide within the next few weeks whether
to penalize the school for violations committed during O'Brien's
tenure, including gifts of cash, housing and other benefits to
players. Earlier this month, the NCAA found seven violations in the
basketball program and one each in the football and women's
O'Brien, who coached the Buckeyes for seven years and led them
to the Final Four in 1999, testified he gave $6,000 in $50 and $100
bills that had accumulated in his office desk drawer to Aleksandar
Radojevic, a 7-foot-3 prospect from Serbia. He said he gave
Radojevic the loan in 1999 because the player's father was dying
and the family had no money for medicine or the funeral.
O'Brien argued the loan did not violate NCAA bylaws because he
knew Radojevic already had lost his amateur status by playing
Radojevic never played for the Buckeyes because the NCAA
declared him ineligible for accepting about $9,000 to play for a
team in his native country. University attorneys said the loan
broke NCAA rules and O'Brien's contract because Radojevic hadn't
yet been ruled ineligible.
Clark wrote in the ruling that the possible NCAA sanctions and
damage to Ohio State's reputation from the loan would have been
relatively minor, while O'Brien's loss of salary and benefits was
Andy Geiger, the former Ohio State athletic director who fired
O'Brien, testified that the basketball coach acknowledged he
violated NCAA rules with the loan, which O'Brien denies.
Geiger said he first learned of the money when he spoke briefly
with O'Brien in April 2004. Six weeks later, Geiger fired O'Brien.
In his lawsuit, O'Brien contended he was fired before an
investigation had determined if he had violated his contract by
breaking NCAA rules. A provision of his contract said the NCAA had
to rule on alleged violations before he could be fired for that
Ohio State president Karen Holbrook testified that she didn't
have to wait to hear from the NCAA how serious the violation was.
Holbrook defended the university's actions after the ruling,
saying in a statement that "we have acted forthrightly in
compliance with NCAA rules and in the best interests of the
athletics program and the university."
The judge disputed the university's claim that O'Brien acted in
bad faith by loaning the money and then covering up what he had
done for more than five years.
"The evidence does not support such a sinister view of
plaintiff's misconduct," Clark said.
O'Brien has said he did not tell his superiors at Ohio State
about the loan right away because it became a moot point.
O'Brien, who coached the Buckeyes to a 133-88 record that
included two Big Ten titles and a conference tournament title, said
Wednesday he has not decided whether he will return to coaching.
"I can go on for days about how sorry I am that this even
happened," he said. "My reputation in this business has always
meant a lot to me and without question that has been soiled."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.