Minnesota Basketball Program Goes on Trial As Williams Case Begins

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Minnesota Basketball Program Goes on Trial As Williams Case Begins
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On Friday, the trial between former Oklahoma State assistant coach Jimmy Williams and the University of Minnesota began in Minnesota state court before Hennepin County Judge Regina Chu.

The initial action filed by Williams against the University of Minnesota contained several counts.   However, as a result of successful pretrial motions by counsel for the University, the only two remaining theories are fraud and negligent misrepresentation.

The dispute involves conversations between Coach Tubby Smith and Williams prior to Williams submitting his resignation to Oklahoma State Coach Eddie Sutton. 

Williams alleges that Smith extended him an assistant coach position with a base salary of $175,000 and another $25,000 for working at Smith’s summer basketball camps.

According to counsel for Williams, Smith called Williams on the phone and said, “Jimmy, are you ready to come to Minnesota? I have the money.[1]   Williams contends that he accepted Smith’s offer on the spot and began making preparations to join Smith in Minnesota.

Williams recalls having a conversation with Smith the following day to about join Smith on a recruiting trip to Houston.  Williams allegedly submitted his resignation letter to Coach Sutton and put his house up for sale after his second conversation with Smith.

Counsel for Williams will likely attack the ability of Coach Smith to accurately recall all of the details of his conversation with Williams.   When Smith and Williams spoke about the possible opportunity at Minnesota, Smith had just come back from visiting his ailing father.

According to counsel for the University, Smith was not as definitive.  Minnesota’s position is that Smith informed Williams that Smith wanted Williams on his staff but that the final decision as to whether a formal offer could be extended to Williams resided with Athletic Director Joel Maturi.

Maturi withheld his approval concerning the hiring of Williams because of Williams’ involvement in recruiting violations during the time that Williams served as an assistant coach with Minnesota Gopher Basketball Coaches Jim Dutcher and Bill Musselman approximately 20 years ago.

The first day of the trial started with fireworks.  Counsel for Williams called several character witnesses on behalf of his client Dutcher, former Minnesota Gopher and Boston Celtic legend Kevin McHale, as well as former United States Congressman Jim Ramstad. 

On Monday, counsel for Williams is expected to call Sutton and possibly former Gopher and Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Flip Saunders.  

One could be left with the impression after reviewing Williams witness list that the key question to be answered by the jury will be whether the University was justified in not hiring Williams because of his involvement in prior recruiting violations at Minnesota. 

However, Judge Chu has made it clear that the key factual question to be answered by the six person jury is not what happened in the past when Williams was previously an assistant at Minnesota but whether Coach Smith represented that he had sole authority to hire Williams[2] . 

If the jury concludes that Coach Smith represented to Williams that he had sole authority to hire him, and that Coach Smith knew that he did not have the authority to hire Williams without Maturi’s approval, the jury can award Williams damages for fraud.

Counsel for Williams may have difficulty establishing the fact that Smith knew in March of 2007 that he didn’t have authority to extend an offer to Williams as Smith did not have a formal contract with the University spelling out the scope of his authority until December of 2007[3] .

In order to prevail on his negligent representation claim, Williams only needs to show that Smith told Williams he had sole authority to hire him and that it was reasonable for Williams to rely on the representation.

Counsel for the University, in an effort to defeat the negligent misrepresentation claim, will likely introduce evidence that Williams had no reasonable expectation to believe that Coach Smith had the authority to extend an assistant coaching position to him without first getting approval from Maturi.

On Friday, Coach Dutcher was cross-examined on the issue of whether he had authority in the past to hire an assistant coach without the approval of then Athletic Director Paul Giel.  Dutcher testified that hiring assistant was never an issue during his tenure but did state that “[w]e would have had a serious discussion.[4]

When Dutcher was asked whether he could have hired his predecessor, Bill Musselman, who left in the wake of several NCAA allegations of misconduct; Dutcher conceded that Giel would most likely not have let him hire Musselman.[5]

Williams has been away from coaching college basketball for the past three years.   At the time he left Oklahoma State, Williams was reportedly making $200,000 a year. During closing arguments, counsel for Williams will likely ask the jury for a multiple of Williams’ annual salary at Oklahoma State.  

A verdict in favor of Williams could result in a significant six figure damage award being assessed against Minnesota.   

 



[1] Big Names Open Trial in Suit against Tubby Smith, Rochelle Olson, Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 14, 2010. 

[2] Id.

[3] Gophers’ Smith signs $13 Million Dollar Deal, Myron P. Medcalf, Star Tribune, December 12, 2007.

[4] Big Names Open Trial in Suit against Tubby Smith, Rochelle Olson, Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 14, 2010. 

[5] Id.

 

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