O'Brien: Player was ineligible when loaned cash
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Fired Ohio State basketball coach Jim O'Brien testified Monday that he lent $6,000 to a recruit because he knew the player had competed professionally and would never join the Buckeyes.
O'Brien spoke during the opening day of the trial in his wrongful firing lawsuit against Ohio State, which says he knew he was violating NCAA rules by keeping the loan secret for more than five years.
O'Brien, who had been the Buckeyes' coach for seven years, was fired June 8, 2004. Then-athletic director Andy Geiger said O'Brien was dismissed after the coach acknowledged to him he had given $6,700 in 1999 to 7-foot-3 Aleksandar Radojevic.
O'Brien described the amount as $6,000 of his own cash that he kept in a locked desk drawer. He said he already had learned in a letter that Radojevic played for a professional team in his native Serbia, and the player confirmed it for him.
"He had lost his amateur status," O'Brien said. "Unless something was going to change, he was not going to play for an NCAA institution."
University attorneys said it was still a violation because Radojevic had not been disqualified officially.
O'Brien is suing in the Ohio Court of Claims for $3.5 million in back pay and benefits, which could grow by millions if interest and other damages are awarded.
Geiger was questioned by O'Brien's attorney, Joseph Murray, and the exchange grew contentious at times.
Geiger conceded that Ohio State did not ask O'Brien any questions, did not consult with the NCAA on its eligibility bylaws and did not begin an investigation in the six weeks between the time Geiger first learned of the loan to Radojevic and O'Brien's firing.
"I was positive he [O'Brien] had committed an NCAA violation. ... I knew there would be sanctions," Geiger said. He later said the dates, times and some conversations were a "jumble" to him now.
The trial is separate from the NCAA's investigation into violations while O'Brien was coaching the Buckeyes.
On Friday, the NCAA's Infractions Committee in Indianapolis started and then postponed a hearing into seven breaches of NCAA bylaws between 1998 and 2004. There are also violations in the football and women's basketball programs. Ohio State has admitted to the violations except an accusation that the university did not have control over the men's basketball program.
Ohio State learned of O'Brien's payment to Radojevic through a lawsuit by a woman who said she provided housing, meals and clothes for another Ohio State recruit from the same area, Slobodan Savovic. He played four years with the Buckeyes, including the 1998-99 team that O'Brien led to the Final Four, and is the source of several of the NCAA violations.
O'Brien, who coached the Buckeyes to a 133-88 record that included two Big Ten titles and a conference tournament title, previously has said he lent Radojevic his own money because the player's father was dying and the family had no money for medicine or the funeral.
"It was the right thing to do because of the circumstances of the family," O'Brien testified.
David Cupps, an attorney representing Ohio State, asked why O'Brien waited so long before reporting the loan. O'Brien said it was because of how the gesture could be perceived.
"That's exactly what is taking place." he said. "The perception, because the words that I hear are 'payment, inducement,' and none of those are accurate."
In his opening statement, Cupps said O'Brien harmed the university's image.
"To brand us as renegades ... is a black eye to the program which no amount of effort inside the university can arrest," he said.
Murray said Ohio State fired O'Brien for doing a good thing.
"Ohio State panicked, it panicked about the possibility of facing the NCAA," he said. "It rushed to judgment."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press