Brannen challenges Cincinnati’s firing ‘for cause’; seeks buyout in lawsuit
It has been 229 days since John Brannen last coached a basketball game with the Cincinnati Bearcats, 203 days since the university demanded he never coach another and just 27 days since he and his legal team withdrew the suit they’d filed in Federal court against UC, its president and athletic director. The Bearcats have been preparing under new coach Wes Miller for their opening game Nov. 9 against Evansville.
All of this suggests the two parties are finished with one another, but this could not be further from the truth.
In fact, their interaction as exes could last longer than the whole employer/employee arrangement.
That will be largely dependent on how the university responds to a new legal action filed by Brannen’s attorneys in Ohio’s Court of Claims that alleges UC breached its contract with Brannen “when it concocted cause” to avoid paying him the buyout required by his deal.
DECOURCY: One-on-one with Coach K before his final season
Brannen’s legal team withdrew the Federal court case for strategic reasons but will pursue the Court of Claims suit in pursuit of $5.25 million they claim he is owed for the term of his contract, as well as interest, costs and “such further relief as may be just and proper,” the suit says.
Brannen’s attorney, Tom Mars, told Sporting News there are two goals for his client in filing the suit. “One is to get the money they owe you, and two is to – I hate to say ‘clearing your name’, because I don’t think there is such a thing as clearing your name – but proving to the satisfaction of any potential future employers that you actually didn’t abuse your players and you actually didn’t violate NCAA rules.”
Through a spokesperson, Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham declined Sporting News’ request to discuss the suit.
Brannen coached the Bearcats for two seasons, winning a share of the American Athletic Conference regular-season title in 2019-20 and reaching the AAC tournament championship game in 2020-21. He compiled a record of 32-20. The first season was ended by the COVID-19 pandemic and the second was shortened to 23 games for the same reason.
MORE: Sporting News preseason Top 25
On March 26, less than two weeks after losing to Houston in the AAC title game, and after six players decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal, UC announced it was commencing “a review of allegations related to its men’s basketball program.” In the release, Cunningham said, “The university has always put the welfare of its student-athletes first.” Brannen was placed on leave on April 3. He was fired April 9.
In the termination letter to Brannen, Cunningham wrote the coach “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance … with respect to rules, regulations and policies and have further jeopardized and/or disregarded the well-being, health and safety of student-athletes.
“Moreover, you have made, attempted, arranged or otherwise made payment for special benefits for a student-athlete other than through approved channels.”
Brannen since has had neither a job nor a paycheck. This might be considered part of a new trend in the hiring and firing of college athletics coaches.
In March 2018, the University of Pittsburgh presented basketball coach Kevin Stallings with the choice of being fired for cause or accepting a buyout of roughly half the $9 million he was owed, according to radio station 93.7 The Fan. Stallings declined to accept either. Ultimately, the school and Stallings settled their dispute, but Pitt reported a series of level II violations that resulted in the coach receiving a three-year show-cause order in a “negotiated resolution” between the school and NCAA.
DECOURCY: Former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins has maddening idea
In November 2019, Kansas fired football coach David Beaty but withheld the $3 million he would have been due in a buyout while possible NCAA rules violations were examined. Seven months later, KU and Beaty settled for the sum of $2.55 million. Beaty’s lawyer said at the time it probably cost Kansas more, between the settlement and attorney’s fees, than had the university merely paid Beaty the term of his contract.
In January 2021, Tennessee fired football coach Jeremy Pruitt for cause after alledging multiple recruiting violations by staffers and withheld the remaining $12.6 million on his contract. Pruitt is threatening to sue the school if the two parties cannot come to a settlement.
Brannen’s suit discusses at length the action of several players who entered the transfer portal following the 2021-22 season and claims “Cunningham seized on their dissatisfaction as an opportunity to replace Coach Brannen with his own choice and attempted to make that opportunity a cost-free one for UC by concocting pretextual grounds for the termination.” The suit says the Bearcats still were returning the three student-athletes who’d played the most minutes in 2020-21 and that guard David DeJulius, who played 19 games before opting out of the remainder of the season, “felt so strongly that Coach Brannen was being unfairly portrayed in the media that he asked for a meeting” with Cunningham.
The suit mentions two primary circumstances as being part of the “cause” for which Brannen was dismissed. One was a reprimand issued to Brannen in November 2020 for conducting an “unauthorized conditioning session” the previous month.
On that occasion, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Brannen had players shoot free throws at the end of a 2-hour practice and, if they failed to reach an acceptable number of successful attempts, to run timed sprints. Those who did not finish in time were ordered to run again. Ultimately, a trainer stepped in and ordered the session be ceased. One player ultimately required medical attention. Cunningham acknowledged the players received adequate water breaks and wore cardiac monitors during the exercise.
This sort of drill has been routine in Division I basketball practices for decades.
Brannen accepted responsibility for what occurred, however, and was not again reprimanded for overly strenuous practices.
“The safeguards Coach Brannen took and his professional judgment that the drill would strengthen his players’ resolve to improve their play refutes any characterization of his conduct as ‘intentionally, negatively, and materially impact(ing) the welfare of a student-athlete’” the suit says.
The other item involved Brannen paying $135 so one of his players could be treated by a mental health professional outside the UC sports medicine department during the pandemic. This circumstance was referenced in Brannen’s termination letter. The suit said Brannen “never concealed what he had done” and did not believe he had violated an NCAA rule.
Mars told Sporting News that by invoking the NCAA allegation in the termination letter, UC breached its contract with Brannen. “There’s one provision in the contract that says: If we fire you for NCAA violations, or violations of any university rules and policies, we have to give you a hearing, and before the hearing we have to interview any witness you ask us to interview, and we have to look at every document you want us to review before we make a decision.” Such a hearing did not occur.
“They put themselves in checkmate, in my opinion, right there,” Mars said.
Mars believes this suit will help elicit information that will assist Brannen in pursuit of another college coaching job before the next hiring cycle commences in March.
There is no 30-second shot clock for the court system, though.
“As you and I know, and as John definitely knows from personal experience now, these situations put a tarnish on a coach that has financial implications that go far beyond just their buyout,” Mars told SN.
“The facts of this case – I know I’m John’s lawyer, so I don’t expect you to take this as gospel – but honestly I don’t take cases without vetting them pretty carefully on the front end. I don’t take cases I think I’m going to lose, and I haven’t lost one in a long, long, long time.”