June 12, 2004

Mr. Clean

Buckeye fans are stunned by the facts in the case of Jim O'Brien, the Ohio State basketball coach who was fired this week when it was disclosed that he was involved in payments to recruits and favors supplied to players that were clear violations of NCAA regulations. O'Brien has always had a squeaky clean reputation, and it is that image in the minds of Buckeye fans that makes this case such a shocker.

The initial report dealt with a cash payment to the family of a recruit, and dated from 1998:

The coach admitted making a $6,000 cash payment to one-time recruit Aleksandar Radojevic, whose home situation in war-torn Yugoslavia was in turmoil.

Radojevic never enrolled at Ohio State, and since he had never played for the Buckeyes, the hope was that while serious, the violations might not carry severe NCAA penalties. Then the reasons for O'Brien's disclosure started to come out. Boban Savovic, another Yugoslavian player who had been a part of OSU Big Ten Championship teams while playing from 1999-2001, was the subject of a lawsuit that had just been filed. Now an actual OSU player was involved, although the involvement of O'Brien in the Savovic matter has not been clearly established at this point. From the Bucknuts.com article by Steve Helwagen, here are some of the details of the allegations:

One piece of the puzzle in the firing of Ohio State men's basketball coach Jim O'Brien is a lawsuit filed by a Columbus woman against former Buckeye player Boban Savovic...

...The suit was filed by Kathleen Salyers in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. She is seeking reimbursement from Savovic for living expenses and other items. In fact, Salyers is asking for compensatory damages, attorneys' fees, and punitive damages of $300,000.

According to the suit, Savovic was living with a Columbus couple, Dan and Kim Roslovic. But when Dan Roslovic, an alleged OSU booster, learned it would be a violation of NCAA rules for the player to live with him, he suggested that Savovic move in with his housekeeper, Salyers.

The suit alleges Roslovic got that advice from former OSU assistant Paul Biancardi, now the head coach at Wright State University. It also alleges that Roslovic agreed to pay Salyers $1,000 a month as well as living expenses for Savovic to stay at her home.

Here is the O-Zone story by John Porentas. It contains links to the actual text of the lawsuit filed by Salyers. Helwagen follows up with commentary and speculation about O'Brien's replacement, calling it a "dark day at OSU". Terry Pluto thinks the new man ought to be Gary Waters, ex-Kent State coach, currently at Rutgers. And the Columbus Dispatch has blanket coverage of the scandal.

As far as I know, there is as yet no clear evidence that O'Brien was aware of the paid living arrangements for Savovic, but he has admitted to involvement in the $6000 payment to Radojevic's family. Dick Vitale looked at the circumstances, along with O'Brien's impeccable track record and reputation, and wondered if perhaps the firing was too hasty:

...considering his entire resumé, my first glance at the allegations tells me O'Brien should have been given a chance to explain.

Perhaps he should have been suspended. Or maybe other punishments would have been appropriate, like a loss of a scholarships or a penalty that would not allow him to recruit off-campus for an extended period.

My understanding is that O'Brien went to Barton Community College to visit Aleksandar Radojevic after he had committed to Ohio State. That same day, the youngster learned his father had died. The player's mom was back in Croatia where she lived, and Radenovic was in a chaotic state. The family was struggling financially.

O'Brien showed he had a heart and offered to loan the player $6,000 on the condition that when he became an NBA first-rounder, he would repay the loan. It was not a gift.

Was it right? No. Should he have made that offer? No. But if you check O'Brien's coaching track record and look at the situation objectively, I wonder if his firing was warranted...

...College basketball lost a quality guy when O'Brien was fired. It just shows the temptation and the pressure these days. It also shows that a coach had a heart bigger than it should have been.

ESPN's Andy Katz says the decisive action by Geiger could help OSU with the NCAA interms of the severity of the penalty. Ironically, it was O'Brien's confession that gave Geiger the green light to act in advance of any investigation:

...O'Brien's admission of a major violation of paying a player's family, even if it was for humanitarian aid for someone dealing with the aftermath of a war, has sent a jolt within the NCAA.

O'Brien was always considered a coach who was above reproach. When St. John's was looking for a "clean image guy, with New York ties," the first name to emerge was Jim O'Brien. O'Brien was not a coach who wanted or liked dealing with any of the sordid elements of the recruiting world while at Boston College or Ohio State.

As for O'Brien, he owned up to his mistake. But the $6,000 figure is too large for him to get a free pass from the university. The NCAA and Geiger immediately termed this to be a major violation. O'Brien obviously made a bad decision, one that has already cost him an $800,000-a-year salary.

As for the NCAA, it looks for preemptive strikes by schools. Geiger took a major step forward by dismissing O'Brien before a formal investigation even begins. That will help Ohio State move forward quicker. It's the harshest move an athletic director can make, but in the eyes of the NCAA, it's the one that will get the most attention if it's done after there is proof.

Read the whole Vitale piece for balance. My selected excerpts left out Vitale's unequivocal statements that the payments to a recruit and his family were wrong, and deserved punishment regardless of the circumstances. After all, there are lots of impoverished families in Yugoslavia, but the payment happened to go to the one with a kid who stands 7'3". The argument that it was a "loan" would seem to have a better chance with the NCAA than the "humanitarian" angle.

I really liked Jim O'Brien. His teams always worked extremely hard, played great team defense, and he always seemed to do "more with less", in terms of the talent he had on the floor. Ohio State can't seem to get one black eye healed these days, before they take a hit in the other one. This roundhouse punch is going to have the basketball program reeling for at least two years. The Buckeyes are going to have to find a coach with a clean image and a reputation for integrity. As one commentator said this week, the bizarre thing is that they thought that's what they already had.

Posted by dan at June 12, 2004 10:22 PM