UConn's Handling of Kevin Ollie a Critical Warning to Athletic Departments
Image via NY Post
In the Spring of 2018, UConn fired head basketball coach, Kevin Ollie, after the school self-reported numerous NCAA violations that occurred in the program under Ollie’s watch. At the time, Ollie still had more than a year left on his contract at the time of his dismissal, but UConn insisted that the firing was for cause due to the violations which would void the buyout provisions in his contract.
However, after a lengthy legal battle, an independent arbitrator has ruled that UConn improperly fired their former coach and must pay him more than $11 million. Attorney Jacques Parenteau called the ruling a “total vindication” for Ollie and that it proves the NCAA’s decision to place UConn on probation and sanctioning Ollie in 2019 was “erroneous and unfounded.”
UConn officials adamantly disagree with the decision and believe they were in the right to fire Ollie with cause due to the alleged violations. Instead of waiting for the conclusion of the investigation into the program, the school claims it did not have “the luxury of waiting more than a year before terminating Ollie for the misconduct the university was aware he had engaged in.”
“The arbitrator’s decision is nonsensical and seriously impedes the university’s ability to manage its athletics program,” the university said in a statement. “It also sends a signal to other coaches in Connecticut that they may ignore NCAA rules with impunity and continue to be employed and paid.”
While UConn can insist on its innocence all they want, they’re still on the hook for the $11 million. But in the bigger picture, this ruling should serve notice to athletic administrators and university presidents moving forward.
In the last couple months, we’ve seen numerous coaches sign massive contracts to either stay at their current school or take over a new program. With these massive contracts comes massive buyouts. With many schools across the country having quick triggers, agents representing these coaches are placing more emphasis on protecting them with strong buyout provisions in their contract. For example, if Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher were to be fired without cause prior to next season, the Aggies would be on the hook for north of $80 million. Now, it’s extremely unlikely that A&M would let Fisher go now, but it goes to show how big these buyouts are getting.
But a way for schools to get around paying these buyouts when their coach’s programs start struggling is firing them for cause. And in some cases, schools attempt to dig up dirt to avoid the liability. We saw this as recently as 2020 when Tennessee self-reported recruiting violations allegedly committed by then head coach Jeremy Pruitt. After signing him to a contract extension after his team started 2-0 earlier in the season, the Vols lost 7 of their final 8 contests. Of course, the news of Tennessee’s self-reporting came after their 7th and final loss.
The similarities are striking in the Kevin Ollie/UConn situation. After winning the national championship in 2014, UConn only returned to the NCAA Tournament one more time and slumped to two consecutive losing seasons before Ollie was terminated in 2018. With significant money still owed to Ollie heading into the next season, UConn pulled the “self-reporting” card to fire him with cause. But here’s the question that looms large: If UConn was competing for conference titles and making deep postseason runs in Ollie’s last few years on the job, would UConn have self-reported violations? I don’t think so.
For any school looking to get out of paying a fired coach’s buyout, you’d better have a real reason to do so. The arbitrator's ruling in the Kevin Ollie/UConn case should send a message that “digging up dirt” to save money on an underperforming coach is risky business. A contract is a contract, and if a school is not happy with the buyout language in, they probably shouldn’t have agreed to it. Coaching college ball is a tremendously hard profession, especially in today’s environment. People sometimes criticize coaches for making “too much” money, but the amount of time and effort they put into their job deserves some protection. Improperly firing a coach for cause is simply an unethical move.
To make matters worse, UConn doesn’t just owe Ollie $11 million over a prolonged stretch, they owe it in the next 10 business days. Not ideal for athletic department that reported that its budget deficit rose from just over $43 million to nearly $47 million in 2021.