Tuesday, November 8th, 2011...1:12 pm

Tubby Smith Costing Gophers More than Basketball Games

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By Nathan Yu

Tubby Smith’s tenure so far at Minnesota has been interesting. If you view his accomplishments as a Gopher from the viewpoint of the rest of Smith’s career, it is somewhat disappointing. Tubby is national champion and a former National Coach of the Year. But if you view it from the Gophers’ side, it is a little more encouraging; Tubby has taken ‘Sota to two NCAA tournaments and one NIT tournament. Encouraging, that is, until Tubby goes out of control and causes you to pay a $1 million verdict to someone  who never even worked for the university or its basketball program.

Rewind back a couple of years to when Tubby first signed on to Minnesota. He was recruiting assistant coaches to join his staff, and he had a couple of conversations with then-Oklahoma State assistant coach Jimmy Williams. The talks were going so well that Tubby allegedly offered Williams a spot on the staff. Tubby said he had the final say on hiring for his staff. The offer was worth roughly $200,000 per year. Williams,  elated at the idea of returning to Minnesota where he had previously coached, reportedly accepted the offer. Williams then hired a realtor to place his Oklahoma property on the market and turned in his resignation papers to Oklahoma State. Sounds nice and peachy so far, right?

Not so fast. Tubby apparently did not have the final say on the hiring of assistant coaches. Instead, the athletic director (A.D.) had the authority to clear all potential hires (who would have thought?). When Tubby gave the athletic director Williams’s name for some routine checks, the A.D. discovered that Williams was tied to some NCAA improprieties back in his days with Minnesota (everything comes full circle, doesn’t it?). The A.D. vetoed Tubby’s decision and sent a letter to Williams with the bad news (thanks for your interest!).

Williams sued Tubby for negligent misrepresentation and fraud. The jury ruled in favor of Williams and awarded a nice amount of compensation. Here is text directly from the verdict and settlement summary:

“Hennepin County jurors returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff…awarding $1,247,293 for reliance on Smith’s representation that he had final authority to hire him as an assistant men’s basketball coach. The jury determined Smith falsely represented he had final authority to hire assistant basketball coaches and failed to use reasonable care or competence in obtaining information regarding his hiring authority or communicating it to Williams or asserting it as his own knowledge without knowing if it was true. Jurors also determined Williams was not negligent in relying on Smith’s representations.” Williams v. The Bd. of Regents of the Univ. of Minn., 2010 WL 2679834 (Minn. Dist. Ct.).

The school appealed the decision, but the appellate court denied their appeal and affirmed the lower court’s decision. And now, the school plans to appeal again to the Minnesota Supreme Court. You can never have enough litigation.

I think everyone would agree that Tubby is liable in this case. He told Williams he had hiring authority; Williams acted on that information; Tubby’s knowingly misrepresented his authority; and Williams was out of a job because of his reliance on the information. The school now is going to argue that the punishment ($1.2 million) is unjust/unreasonable. I do not think this is a strong argument. I don’t know what the terms of the contract were in terms of years of employment, but let’s say it was, on the conservative side, a three-year deal. That means Williams was out of $600,000 directly by nullifying that contract. Well, what if Williams could have been offered a more lucrative deal from another school? Minnesota took that opportunity away from Williams. Minnesota also may have hurt Williams’s employment chances in its publicizing of Williams’s past conduct (although, presumably, another employer would have discovered that information). But I think Minnesota should, from a policy standpoint, be punished (punitive damages) for their conduct. You simply cannot make such a costly mistake; the man quit his other job and sold his home!

On another note, what does this say about the autonomy of coaches at big programs? Did Tubby assume he could push Williams through the hiring process simply because he was Tubby Smith and he gets his way? Which coaches would have, or have, done the same? Coach K? Calipari? Boeheim? Did it make a difference that Williams’s past violations were committed at Minnesota and not at another school? It would be interesting to see a change of facts and how the athletic director would have handled the situation, which may also end up changing whether a lawsuit is brought.

Nathan Yu is a regular contributor to the SELS Blog. He can be reached at nyu@email.wm.edu.

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