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February 24, 2008
Kelvin's End
What Jim O'Brien Really Means

by John Gasaway

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For the Indiana University administration, Friday was the equivalent of a tee shot on a par-three that bounces off the cart path, rolls through the sand and ends up five feet from the pin. The execution was lacking and it sure looked ugly while it was happening, but there's no arguing with the result.

It was a chaotic day, one marked by rumored player boycotts and repeated delays in the long-awaited press conference. Nevertheless, the chaotic day resulted in a little bit of peace and, who knows, maybe even a chance for a birdie. Kelvin Sampson is gone, bought out for $750,000 ($550,000 of which was fronted by an anonymous donor) and a pledge to not sue the University for wrongful termination. Better still, the players eventually came around and did indeed show up at Northwestern last night, where they eked out a three-point win against the Wildcats. The Dan Dakich interregnum has begun.

As strange as it may seem that a university would fear being sued by a coach accused of lying to the NCAA, Indiana was right to limit its exposure on this front. Just last week Ohio State lost its final appeal in a wrongful termination suit brought by former coach Jim O'Brien. OSU fired O'Brien in 2004; now they'll pay him at least $2.7 million.

Everything about O'Brien's exit from Columbus four years ago was disastrous for Ohio State. For starters, O'Brien's transgression was, on its face, much more flagrant than "just phone calls." The Buckeye coach admitted to giving a recruit six thousand dollars in 1998. O'Brien called it a loan, saying it was intended to allow the player, Aleksandar Radojevic, to move his parents to the U.S. from then-war-torn Yugoslavia.

By the time then OSU athletic director Andy Geiger learned of the "loan," Radojevic had long since come and gone, never having played a game for the Buckeyes. He'd been declared ineligible by the NCAA in May 1999 for having played professionally in Yugoslavia. Years later, this became a crucial element of O'Brien's successful suit. There's no NCAA regulation, O'Brien's lawyers would one day note, that prohibits a coach from loaning money to the family of a professional player. Nevertheless, in 2004 Geiger understandably feared what the NCAA would do with this information. He decided to fire his coach.

Geiger's decision had two far-reaching consequences. First, O'Brien's firing took place in June, right in the middle of the summer recruiting circuit, when the annual coaching carousel has long since shut down. O'Brien's sudden firing and the widespread assumption that the NCAA would come down hard on the Buckeyes killed recruiting more effectively than any scholarship reduction could have. Look at Ohio State today: there are no minutes played by juniors, the class that was being recruited that summer.

Second, O'Brien's contract, renegotiated in the afterglow of the Buckeyes' 1999 Final Four run, contained very strict language on termination "for cause." Only a material breach of the contract or actual sanctions (as opposed to allegations) from the NCAA could trigger the contract's "for cause" termination clause. Given that the program obviously hadn't been sanctioned when O'Brien was fired, the coach sued. Ohio State was forced to claim there'd been a material breach of the contract. They lost.

As the cases of O'Brien and Sampson demonstrate, athletic directors at Division I programs operate within a uniquely challenging set of constraints when they sign a coach to a contract. Their programs can effectively be put into a short yet severe coma by NCAA allegations that require time to examine and, let us not forget, can even on occasion be wrong. The only problem is that examination and due process take time--and in the face of uncertainty, recruits will go elsewhere.

To say that a real challenge exists, however, isn't to say that it's been met very well in practice. Look at the O'Brien case. The absurdly generous contract terms offered to O'Brien were predicated on the belief that losing this coach would be disastrous for the Ohio State program. In fact, history suggests that losing O'Brien was the best thing that could have happened to the Buckeyes.

In September 2004, OSU forfeited two men's basketball scholarships and self-imposed a one-year postseason ban. At the time, the ban was widely regarded as a hollow gesture, given a team that wasn't expected to be very good anyway. In fact, that 2005 team went 20-12 and singlehandedly prevented Illinois from recording an undefeated regular season.

Then, in the fall of 2005, Ohio State signed what can only be termed the best recruiting class in the 113-year history of the Big Ten. With Greg Oden and Mike Conley, OSU landed two of the 2007 NBA draft's first four picks. Add in Daequan Cook, and the Buckeyes had three of that draft's first 21 picks. In 2007, Ohio State went to the national championship game after having won back-to-back outright Big Ten titles.

As for the once allegedly indispensable Jim O'Brien, he is now known to readers of human resources case law, Basketball Prospectus writers, and very few others.

The moral here is that when negotiating contracts, athletic directors should shelve their pleading and instead understand that they operate from a position of unusual strength. You can get a great coach, even in June, even at a football school, even at a program reeling from a scandal involving cash and recruits. In this particular instance, the great coach was Thad Matta.

In addition to viewing O'Brien's lawsuit as a cautionary tale, then, athletic directors should also view the Ohio State program's instant renaissance as both a hopeful parable and as a cudgel to wield at the bargaining table against grasping coaches. Contracts should be structured on the empirically unassailable truth that there are many more excellent coaches than there are excellent coaching positions. Such contracts should also include provision for paid suspension in the event of an NCAA Notice of Allegations. Indiana didn't have such a clause in Sampson's contract, so they employed him for two games longer than they should have.

In the end, Sampson was a coach who behaved arrogantly yet wasn't nearly arrogant enough. He plainly believed that the rules were unimportant or, maybe, that he simply wouldn't get caught. Either way, that's arrogant behavior. It also seems clear, however, that Sampson viewed the calls as just one more way of outworking and outhustling the competition.

He'd have been better served if he'd had that swagger, the one a coach should have at an elite program. Bob Knight, no stranger to arrogance he, exhibited scrupulous adherence to the rules not because he was particularly fastidious or, goodness knows, compliant. No, Knight was clean in the NCAA's eyes because he quite plainly viewed himself as an Olympian figure who operated on a higher plane than those who would, and do, cut corners.

With his somewhat surprising ascendance to the Indiana job in 2006, Sampson, the guy who started his career at Montana Tech, should have been more like Knight in this single respect. Sampson had at last landed at a place where he didn't need to cut corners anymore. Say what you will, the man can coach. He never would have lacked for talent at Indiana, even without a hundred or so extra calls. I've heard Sampson accused of arrogance and hubris, but if anything he should have had a higher opinion of himself.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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