Andy Geiger's decisive action Tuesday to fire Jim O'Brien will likely help Ohio State as it faces a long, drawn-out investigation into allegations of financial assistance and extra benefits to a former Serbian recruit.
A source close to the process told ESPN.com that the Ohio State athletic director's swift actions will likely help the school in any penalty phase when the investigation is complete. But that could be months. The NCAA doesn't have any more information than the public after the release of a 798-page deposition, which is part of a lawsuit filed by Kathleen Salyers against Dan and Kim Roslovic.
Salyers, a child-care provider from Columbus, Ohio, alleges that the Roslovics, Ohio State boosters, were supposed to pay her $1,000 a month to cover expenses while former Ohio State player Slobodan "Boban" Savovic lived with her during his four years at the school, beginning in 1998.
It is within these depositions that the revelation that O'Brien paid $6,000 to the family of then-recruit Aleksander Radejovic was revealed. O'Brien admitted the payment to Geiger in April. O'Brien contends the payment was made to help the 7-foot-3 Serbian's family, which was in dire need.
This one admission was the deciding factor in firing O'Brien. The lawsuit also names former assistant Paul Biancardi as a major player in the Savovic violations of extra benefits. Biancardi led Wright State to a 14-14 record (10-6 in the Horizon League) in his first season at the school in 2003-04 and denies Salyers' charges of any wrongdoing.
Proving Salyers' case will be the hardest part for the NCAA, according to a source. But if Biancardi did commit violations, even while he was at Ohio State, then he could be subject to NCAA penalties. And the NCAA would likely expect Wright State to take action against its head coach for past violations.
O'Brien's attorney, Jim Zeszutek, told the Associated Press the payment to Radejovic was a loan, not a gift. When Zeszutek talked to ESPN.com earlier this week, he said that O'Brien never knew if the money ever got to Radejovic. He also said O'Brien should have received the due process of an NCAA investigation before a decision was made on his job status.
The O'Brien camp was also hoping O'Brien wouldn't be treated so harshly since Radejovic never played for the Buckeyes and was already ineligible when the payment was supposedly given. The NCAA ruled Radejovic ineligible in 1998-99 for accepting money while playing for an overseas team. Radejovic, who played at Barton County (Kan.) Community College the previous season, ultimately declared for the draft and was selected by Toronto at No. 12 in 1999.
But one source with knowledge of the investigation said the timeline doesn't make sense, questioning when O'Brien made the payment. If he had made the payment after Radejovic was ineligible, then why do it if Radejovic was on the verge of a first-round guaranteed contract in the NBA?
Zeszutek told ESPN.com Wednesday that O'Brien was still stunned by his dismissal and that the two were going to huddle in the next few days and decide their next course of action. They plan on challenging the dismissal in some form, but Zeszutek confirmed that there is no settlement on a firing of this nature. (Most college coaches have a clause in their contract that states they can be fired for a major NCAA violation.)
And make no mistake, the NCAA will consider the payment to Radejovic a major violation. The extra benefits for Savovic would also fall into this category. And the NCAA could find more violations as it conducts its investigation that may not be resolved this season. The average time these investigations/penalty phases take to complete is a year.
So, O'Brien's admission of a major violation of paying a player's family, even if it was for humanitarian aid for someone dealing with the aftermath of a war, has sent a jolt within the NCAA.
O'Brien was always considered a coach who was above reproach. When St. John's was looking for a "clean image guy, with New York ties," the first name to emerge was Jim O'Brien. O'Brien was not a coach who wanted or liked dealing with any of the sordid elements of the recruiting world while at Boston College or Ohio State.
In talking to coaches and administrators this week, the O'Brien firing was more of a shock than any revelation that occurred in the past year from the rather tame Mike Montgomery leaving Stanford to go to the Golden State Warriors to Larry Eustachy's departure a year ago at Iowa State after announcing he was an alcoholic. (Eustachy was hired by Southern Miss this spring). Only Dave Bliss' attempted coverup of his Baylor violations ranked as a bigger surprise.
Supporters of O'Brien say that his admission of guilt should help him with the NCAA. But not saying anything for six years, and only then after it was revealed in a deposition, could hurt him.
The uncertainty of the investigation could scare away some OSU coaching candidates. The timing doesn't help, either. Ohio State is considered one of the premier jobs in the country with the ability to be the first choice of every player in the state. Coaches like Thad Matta (Xavier), Gary Waters (Rutgers), Herb Sendek (N.C. State) and Tom Crean (Marquette) are all entrenched at their schools and would have to be told they were the top choice before considering leaving at this point. But Matta and Waters would certainly go if called. The job is too good to pass up.
As for interim coach Rick Boyages, he likely only has a chance to stay on until Geiger finds a higher-profile coach. Boyages' links to O'Brien are too strong, even though he said he was unaware of any payments. Boyages and Biancardi aren't close, even though they were on the same staff, and there is a chance one didn't know what the other was doing while they were under O'Brien.
As for O'Brien, he owned up to his mistake. But the $6,000 figure is too large for him to get a free pass from the university. The NCAA and Geiger immediately termed this to be a major violation. O'Brien obviously made a bad decision, one that has already cost him an $800,000-a-year salary.
As for the NCAA, it looks for preemptive strikes by schools. Geiger took a major step forward by dismissing O'Brien before a formal investigation even begins. That will help Ohio State move forward quicker. It's the harshest move an athletic director can make, but in the eyes of the NCAA, it's the one that will get the most attention if it's done after there is proof.
O'Brien gave the school and ultimately the NCAA the evidence by admitting he made the payment. Now it's up to the NCAA, Ohio State and Wright State to prove that Salyers was telling the truth about Biancardi and any other violations.
And that, in the end, will be the toughest portion of the investigation ahead, and will make the next two seasons at Ohio State even more tenuous.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.