O'Brien to get about $2.2M for Ohio State firing
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Even though former basketball coach Jim O'Brien broke NCAA rules by giving money to a recruit, a judge ruled Wednesday that Ohio State must pay O'Brien $2.2 million plus interest because it failed to follow the terms of his contract.
"It is clear that this seemingly unfair result arises from the extremely favorable provisions of the contract," Ohio Court of Claims Judge Joseph T. Clark wrote in his decision.
O'Brien, fired in June of 2004, had asked for at least $3.6 million. Ohio State said it didn't owe him any money because he gave $6,000 to recruit Aleksandar Radojevic, lied about it and tried to cover it up.
Clark said in his opinion that Ohio State was victimized by a contract that heavily favored the ex-coach. Under the contract -- drafted by university lawyers in an attempt to keep O'Brien as the Buckeyes coach -- Ohio State needed to follow a strict firing procedure even if O'Brien violated NCAA rules.
"The contract is extremely favorable to the plaintiff but it is not unreasonable," Clark said in his decision. "The parties in this case negotiated a contract virtually guaranteeing [O'Brien] that he could not be terminated for an NCAA infraction."
Ohio State officials said they would appeal the decision.
"We continue to believe that the university acted appropriately in dismissing coach O'Brien," Ohio State vice president and general counsel Christopher M. Culley said in a statement. "The NCAA sanctions that followed the court's initial decision in February 2006 validated the serious nature of the violations."
The award caps more than two years of controversy at Ohio State, which was given three years of probation by the NCAA last March.
The 56-year-old O'Brien, who coached the Buckeyes for seven years and took them to the Final Four in 1999, was fired in June 2004 after revealing to then-athletic director Andy Geiger that he had given the money to Radojevic, a 7-foot-3 Serbian prospect.
The NCAA ruled the university must erase all references to its trip to the Final Four in 1999 and repay some $800,000 in tournament revenue from 1998-2002. It also determined that another Ohio State player, Boban Savovic, was ineligible for receiving improper inducements.
O'Brien charged that the university did not follow his contract in releasing him. Judge Clark agreed, ruling in February that O'Brien broke his contract by giving the money 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.
Clark did limit the amount of money awarded O'Brien because the coach's NCAA violations would have prevented him from receiving two extra years on his contract for winning Big Ten titles in 2000 and 2002.
Joseph Murray, O'Brien's lead attorney, said he did not have an immediate comment.
O'Brien coached the Buckeyes to a 133-88 record that included two Big Ten titles and a conference tournament title. He said he gave the money to Radojevic in 1999 because the player's father was dying and the family was unable to pay for medicine or a funeral.
Geiger didn't find out about the payment for more than five years. In that time, Radojevic had been ruled ineligible by the NCAA for accepting $9,000 to play in his native Yugoslavia. Ohio State then appealed to the NCAA to restore Radojevic's eligibility -- with O'Brien not mentioning the payment during the lengthy appeal process.
The appeal also was turned down and Radojevic never played for the Buckeyes.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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