O#8217;Brien: I didn#8217;t break any rules

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2005


(AP) — Fired Ohio State basketball coach Jim O’Brien testified Monday that his $6,000 loan to a recruit did not violate NCAA bylaws because he knew the recruit had already lost his amateur status by playing professionally and would never join the Buckeyes.

O’Brien testified in the opening day of the trial in his wrongful firing lawsuit against Ohio State, which says he knew he was breaking NCAA rules by keeping the loan a secret for more than five years. O’Brien’s lawyer countered that the loan did not come to light until after the NCAA’s four-year statute of limitations on violations.

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The seven-year head coach of the Buckeyes was fired June 8, 2004. Then-athletic director Andy Geiger said O’Brien was fired after the coach acknowledged to him that he had given the money in 1999 to 7-foot-3 center Aleksandar Radojevic.

O’Brien described the amount as $6,000 in cash he had saved in a locked desk drawer in his office. He said he already had learned that Radojevic played for a professional team in his native Serbia, and the player confirmed it for him.

‘‘He had lost his amateur status,’’ said O’Brien, looking grayer and thinner since he last walked on the Ohio State sideline almost two years ago. ‘‘Unless something was going to change, he was not going to play for an NCAA institution.’’

University attorneys said it was still a violation because Radojevic had not been officially declared ineligible to play college basketball.

O’Brien is suing Ohio State in the Ohio Court of Claims for $3.5 million in back pay and benefits, which could grow by millions if interest and other damages are awarded.

Once the trial resumed after the power went out for 30 minutes, Geiger was questioned by O’Brien’s attorney, Joseph Murray, in an exchange that grew contentious at times.

Geiger conceded that Ohio State did not ask O’Brien any questions, did not consult with the NCAA on its eligibility bylaws and did not begin an investigation in the six weeks between the time Geiger first learned of the loan to Radojevic and O’Brien’s firing.

‘‘I was positive he (O’Brien) had committed an NCAA violation. … I knew there would be sanctions,’’ said Geiger, still working in the athletic department. He later said the dates, times and some conversations were a ‘‘jumble’’ to him now.

The trial is separate from the NCAA’s investigation into violations committed during O’Brien’s coaching tenure with the Buckeyes.

On Friday in Indianapolis, the NCAA’s Infractions Committee started and then postponed a hearing into seven violations of NCAA bylaws by the men’s basketball program between 1998 and 2004. There also are individual violations in the football and women’s basketball programs to address. Ohio State has admitted to the violations except an accusation that the university did not have control over the men’s basketball program.

O’Brien’s loan to Radojevic came to light through a lawsuit by a woman who said she provided housing, meals, money and clothes for another Ohio State recruit from the same war-torn area, Boban Savovic. He played four years with the Buckeyes, including the 1998-99 team that O’Brien led to the Final Four, and is the source of several of the NCAA violations.

O’Brien, who coached the Buckeyes to a 133-88 record that included two Big Ten titles and a conference tournament title, said he loaned Radojevic his own money because the player’s father was dying and the family had no money for medicine or the funeral.

‘‘It was the right thing to do because of the circumstances of the family,’’ O’Brien testified.

O’Brien said he told Geiger what he had done and that Ohio State had not gained anything from the loan.

‘‘We didn’t get anything out of this and I told him that I had not done it for any other reason than to help out the kid’s family,’’ said O’Brien.

O’Brien testified that what Geiger ‘‘indicated to me was we could work through this thing together and, (he said) ’I do not question your motive for giving this family money.’’’

Radojevic subsequently was taken in the first round of the 1999 NBA draft. If Ohio State’s appeals had restored Radojevic’s eligibility, O’Brien said he would have acknowledged the loan.

David Cupps, an attorney representing Ohio State, asked why O’Brien waited so long before reporting the loan.

‘‘For exactly what is going on now, because … of the perception of what could conceivably come from this gesture,’’ O’Brien said. ‘‘The words that I hear are ’payment’ and ’inducement’ and none of those are accurate.’’

In his opening statement, Cupps said the university has been harmed by a stigma that O’Brien has created because of the NCAA investigation.

‘‘To brand us as renegades … is a black eye to the program which no amount of effort inside the university can arrest,’’ he said.

Murray said Ohio State fired O’Brien for doing a good thing.

‘‘Ohio State panicked, it panicked about the possibility of facing the NCAA,’’ he said. ‘‘It rushed to judgment.’’