Ohio State fired Jim O’Brien on Tuesday, noting the coach’s own admission to athletic director Andy Geiger that he had provided money to a recruit from Serbia after he had signed a national letter of intent in 1999.
Geiger met with the media Tuesday afternoon to announce the firing of O’Brien, OSU’s head coach since 1997-98. The coach admitted making a $6,000 cash payment to one-time recruit Aleksandar Radojevic, whose home situation in war-torn Yugoslavia was in turmoil.
“Integrity is an indispensable value to our university and to the Department of Athletics and a major breach of this value is intolerable,” Geiger said. “Given what we have celebrated together, I deeply regret that we have come to this circumstance.”
OSU President Karen Holbrook issued a statement reacting to O’Brien’s dismissal.
“I was shocked and saddened when informed of the events which led to the termination of Coach O’Brien, and can understand the sense of loss and disappointment that will be shared among the team, other coaches and athletic staff, and our students and fans,” Holbrook said.
“A serious violation of NCAA bylaws by someone in whom the university has placed great trust and responsibility simply cannot be tolerated. Since being presented with the facts, Andy Geiger has acted appropriately and expeditiously. I can assure you that the university is continuing to cooperate completely with the NCAA in the ongoing joint investigation.”
Geiger told reporters he has named associate head coach Rick Boyages as the interim coach as he begins a search for O’Brien’s permanent successor. Boyages was on O’Brien’s staff during Radojevic’s recruitment, although Geiger said Boyages assured him he had no knowledge of the extra benefits O’Brien provided the player.
“I was assured by him that he was not involved with this and not familiar with it,” Geiger said.
According to Geiger, this story began to unravel after a Columbus woman, Kathleen Salyers, filed a lawsuit in Franklin County Common Pleas Court against former OSU player Boban Savovic. At the present time, it is unclear what is contained in the lawsuit.
However, Geiger said, “The university is not a party to the lawsuit, but the complaint includes numerous allegations about the Ohio State basketball program. The suit … involves allegations concerning housing, meals, clothes, etc. that Kathleen Salyers provided … Savovic.”
According to Geiger, O’Brien approached him at a luncheon before the April 24 spring football game to inform him of his cash payment to Radojevic. Radojevic, a 7-3 center, never played for Ohio State. In May 1999, the NCAA ruled he lost his amateur status by accepting $13,000 to play for a Serbian pro team.
O’Brien did not attend the news conference. According to Geiger, the coach’s lucrative long-term contract has been terminated “for cause.” He would receive no buyout.
O’Brien issued a statement through his attorney, James Zeszutek. According to that statement, O'Brien received a letter by hand from the university stating that he was being fired for alleged violations of NCAA bylaws.
"I learned this morning, by letter, that I was being fired as head men's basketball coach at Ohio State University for alleged violations of NCAA bylaws,” O’Brien said in the statement. “I am advised that my firing is because I was asked to and tried to give assistance to a young man's family who was in dire financial straits. The assistance in no way influenced the young man in his decision to attend OSU, and, indeed, the young man did not enroll at OSU.
"My lawyers have asked to meet with OSU administrators and their counsel to explain the details of what occurred, but OSU unfortunately refused to do so. I am grateful for the support I have received from the people in Columbus and throughout the State of Ohio while I have been coaching at OSU."
Zeszutek added that he and O'Brien requested to speak with Ohio State administrators and counsel to explain the details of what occurred, but the university refused that request.
Geiger, in his statement, said that O’Brien told him that he gave Radojevic the money because he was “concerned about the Radojevic family in Yugoslavia.”
“Alex’s father passed away on Sept. 8, 1998, his mother was unable to work due to a disability, and Alex has two sisters and a brother. Alex was unable to attend his father’s funeral in Yugoslavia because of the war conditions there. It was intended that Alex would send the money home to his family,” Geiger said.
Geiger said university money was not used to pay Radojevic. It was unclear whether the money came directly from O’Brien or a third party.
Geiger said he had no timetable for the ongoing NCAA investigation and could not comment on whether he expects the program to face probation. He also said that he had no timetable on when a new coach would be named. A search committee will assist with the selection process, Geiger said.
O’Brien is 368-305 in his 22-year head coaching career, which also includes stops at St. Bonaventure and Boston College. He was 133-88 in seven years at Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to the 1999 Final Four, two Big Ten regular season co-championships (2000 and ’02) and the 2002 Big Ten conference tournament title. OSU enjoyed a school-record four straight NCAA berths under O’Brien.
OSU was 14-16 this past year, missing the postseason for the first time in six years. O’Brien spent much of the season with health concerns after surgery on his neck weakened his voice.
"We consider these matters to be very severe," Geiger said. "I am troubled that a rule was admittedly violated and it took five years to find out about it.
“By giving Aleksandar Radojevic money, Coach O’Brien had violated significant NCAA rules and could not continue in his position as the head basketball coach at Ohio State.”
Geiger said O’Brien met with his players this afternoon. The AD plans to do likewise on Wednesday and one of the players will be selected to sit on the selection committee.
Geiger said there had been “no discussions” on whether OSU’s four incoming signees would be released from their letters of intent.
“We will be contacting them to try and convince them to stay at Ohio State,” Geiger said.
It was also unclear whether any current players would pursue a transfer.
Stay tuned to Bucknuts.com for updates as they are warranted.
Click here for a transcript of the press conference from the OSU official site.