Firing, or Not Firing, a Successful Coach Who Errs Holds Pitfalls

Sep 8, 2005

A head coach of a minor sport at a major college institution crossed the line a few years ago.
In a fit of anger, he grabbed the arm of a student-athlete, dragged her across the floor in front of her stunned teammates and injured the young woman’s shoulder.
The student-athlete, who had had a stellar freshman season, needed surgery and was out for the year. She never returned to the form she exhibited as a freshman.
And the coach?
A winner of multiple national championships, he received a slap on the wrist and continued coaching for several more years.
The story doesn’t end there, but more on what happened later.
The overall issue of when and how to discipline a successful coach, however, was recently played out in a more public setting at the University of Cincinnati in August. There, Men’s Basketball Coach Bob Huggins, under extreme pressure, resigned, ostensibly because of his off the court actions. Huggins had been arrested and convicted of driving under the influence in 2004. While that wasn’t the only factor – NCAA sanctions and his players’ criminal activities also had a hand — it was a significant factor.
Huggins accepted the university’s offer to buy out the remaining term of his contract at a cost of approximately $3 million. According to the school, it also offered the coach a position outside the athletics department through March 31, 2008. If the coach had rejected both options, the university allegedly would have “exercised its rights under the existing contract” and fired him.
The Huggins case and the university’s various offers illustrate the growing challenge of how colleges deal with the bad behavior of successful coaches. If the school had documented the initial transgressions and put Huggins on a very short leash, would it still have had to make the other offers or could it have summarily fired him, and saved millions of dollars?
Attorney James F. Dial, of Reed Smith, illuminated the risk of not “treating all coaches the same. The disparate treatment of similarly-situated individuals could give rise to the inference of unlawful discrimination and/or a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”
Kent Weiser, the AD at Emporia State University, added that such an approach is good policy as well.
“Regardless of the coach’s success, as far as wins and losses, they must be treated like any other coach or staff member who strays from the university’s mission,” Weiser said. “No one person is above the department as a whole, and it would be unwise to risk the credibility of a total athletics program because of one coach.”
And yet, one would have to wear blinders, not to recognize “the influence a highly successful coach has among alumni, fans, etc.,” said Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association. “So it is prudent to understand the impact of that type of influence.”
“However, on matters pertaining to ethical conduct, the AD must make decisions and develop methods that are in alignment with the institutional and Athletics Department core values/mission statement.”
Baughman believes there “are countless examples of ADs, who have managed difficult situations made tougher due to the ‘celebrity’ of the coach, yet moved in a direction that did not waiver from the guidelines and principles of the Institution. Actually, in most cases, the ‘celebrity’ coach also understands their level of influence, and will maintain a high degree of ethical decorum when dealing with specific situations.”
Of course, the best way to avoid such scenarios would be to address the issue up front with morality clauses or similar language.
Donna Lopiano, who is a former AD and is currently the executive director of the women’s sports foundation, suggests that an AD’s most important responsibility “is to write policy that clearly states the expectations of coaches and penalties for failure to adhere to policy, including (?) applyingl the policy to every coach regardless of win-loss record.
“These policies should cover:
1. Obligation to self report rules violations. If a coach self-reports and there was no intentional rules violation, termination should not be a penalty.
2. Intentional violation…immediate termination.
3. If it cannot be determined whether the violation was intentional, this is a gray area where the AD looks at whether a coach should have known of an occurrence or practice, whether the coach has a history of rules violations, etc.
Other “critical policy areas,” says Lopiano, include:
“obligations to know and adhere to all NCAA rules
rules prohibiting personal relationships with players or directly reporting personnel
player safety including prohibition against dispensing any drug, vitamin or nutritional supplement and obligation to follow the instructions of trainers and MDs, withholding water, weigh-ins, etc.
department rules prohibiting improper academic assistance, rules regarding use of alcohol, sexist or unethical entertainment of recruits
unprofessional conduct during practice or competition
conviction of felony
misuse of university funds”
And the Rest of the Story
The coach highlighted at the beginning of the story crossed the line again with another player. The incident was reported. This time there was even less punishment. The players, incensed after an otherwise successful year, met with the AD and communicated an unwillingness to play for the coach.
Since you can’t really fire a coach because his players don’t like him, the coach was given another administrative position, at the same salary. The university must live with an earlier decision to look the other way, a cautionary tale that should resonate throughout college athletics.


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