Judge: Ohio State improperly fired ex-coach O'Brien

Updated: February 15, 2006, 7:40 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

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 hearing.

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 basketball programs.

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 professionally.

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 substantial.

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 reason.

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.