COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State must pay former basketball coach Jim O'Brien about $2.2 million plus interest for firing him for giving a recruit $6,000.
The award by a judge in the Ohio Court of Claims on Wednesday ends two years of controversy at Ohio State, which received NCAA sanctions for the money given to the recruit.
The 56-year-old O'Brien, who coached the Buckeyes for seven years, guided them to the Final Four in 1999. He was fired in June of 2004 after revealing to then-athletic director Andy Geiger that he had given the money to Serbian prospect Aleksandar Radojevic. He had sought $3.6 million in his lawsuit.
O'Brien charged that the university did not follow his contract in releasing him. Judge Joseph T. 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.
In his ruling Wednesday, Clark said, "... this single, isolated failure of performance was not so egregious" to lead to O'Brien's firing under the lenient terms of his contract.
A subsequent investigation vacated that trip to the Final Four and found that O'Brien had violated NCAA bylaws. The sanctioning body of college sports put Ohio State on three years probation in March for violations that including those that occurred in the basketball program under O'Brien.
O'Brien had asked for reimbursement for his annual salary of $236,552, plus damages of $3.3 million. His contract specified he was due 3 1/2 times his base salary for the length of the time remaining on the agreement. He still had more than five years left on the contract.
Ohio State contended O'Brien was owed nothing because he violated his contract by breaking NCAA rules.
"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 and reinforced to us that we took the appropriate action in terminating his contract."
Culley said he expected the university to appeal the decision.
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.