A Hennepin County jury in Minneapolis, Minnesota awarded a judgment, in the amount of $1.247 million against the University of Minnesota, in favor of former Oklahoma State assistant coach Jimmy Williams this afternoon.
The lawsuit, filed by Williams against Minnesota, was based on whether Minnesota Basketball Head Coach Tubby Smith made false representations to Williams about his ability to hire Williams as his assistant coach.
A 14 minute phone conversation on April 2, 2007 between Smith and Williams was heavily scrutinized by both sides. Williams testified that it was clear to him, after the phone conversation, that Smith had extended him a job offer to serve as an assistant coach on the Minnesota staff.
Williams testified he subsequently quit his $200,000 a year job at Oklahoma State to prepare for joining Smith in Minnesota.
Minnesota decided ultimately not to hire Williams, who was cited for multiple recruiting violations while previously working as an assistant coach at Minnesota.
Minnesota unsuccessfully advanced three arguments at trial.
First, Minnesota argued that Smith made no definitive offer to Williams during their phone conversation.
The jury likely concluded an offer was made during the phone conversation, given Williams and Smith's testimonies. Williams was very clear that an offer was extended whereas Smith was more equivocal about what he conveyed to the candidate.
Second, Minnesota argued that no formal offer could be extended to Williams until Athletic Director Joel Maturi had given his approval to the job offer.
Williams' counsel skillfully introduced testimony from former Oklahoma State Coach Eddie Sutton and former Minnesota Coach Jim Dutcher. In their experience, it was not necessary for an Athletic Director to given his or her approval to the selection of an assistant coach on a team's staff.
Williams' counsel portrayed Smith as a similar “power coach” that would enjoy the same unfettered discretion in hiring assistants. Minnesota's counsel may have unwittingly played into the theory that Smith is a “power coach” when he jokingly asked Smith when Minnesota was going to win a National Championship.
Even if the jury believed Maturi needed to give his approval, the jury could have found that Maturi gave his approval based on an e-mail sent to one of his assistants. Maturi told his assistant to arrange housing, keys, and identification cards for Williams, Ron Jirsa, and Saul Smith on April 3, 2007.
Two days later, Jirsa and Smith became official assistant coaches on Smith’s staff. The timing of the e-mail and the fact that it was sent by Maturi was likely not lost on the jury.
Finally, Minnesota argued that because he failed to disclose his past recruiting violations at Minnesota to Smith, Williams could not bring action against Minnesota.
Minnesota law does recognize that an employer can defeat a claim by one of its employees if the employer is able to show that the employee lied during the hiring process, and that the information the employee lied about would have caused the employer not to hire the employee.
However, Minnesota's counsel did not introduce evidence to establish that Smith, or anyone from the University, asked Williams about his prior NCAA violations. Williams was under no affirmative legal obligation to inform Smith about his prior NCAA violations at Minnesota.
During closing argument, Williams' counsel asked the jury to award $1.7 million dollars on behalf of his client as a result of lost wages and expenses, given that Williams hasn't secure an assistant coaching position in Division I Basketball since he left Oklahoma State.
The jury awarded Williams $1.247 million dollars.
Minnesota juries, when they do find for the plaintiff, often award damages in an amount that is equivalent to three to five times as much as the annual salary of the plaintiff in similar cases. Counsel for Minnesota may view that the University has an argument that the damages awarded by the jury were excessive.
The jury decision casts a negative light on the hiring practices of the university, and raises several questions.
For example, what script is provided by the university to coaches when they speak to prospective assistant coaches about potential job opportunities?
At what point is a background check conducted on a potential candidate?
What role does Maturi play in hiring assistant coaches?
The salaries paid to assistant coaches, especially in the basketball and football program, require Minnesota and similar institutions to have carefully thought out how they approach assistant coaching candidates, what information they need before extending job offers, and who has the authority to hire an assistant coach.
The Williams jury today found that in 2007, Minnesota and Coach Smith were not on the same page. Hopefully, the issues raised in the Williams case have been resolved internally at the University.
The University has made no announcements as to whether they intend to ask Trial Court Judge Regina Chu for post verdict relief, or whether they intend to appeal today’s decision to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
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