Former coach to file suit

Former interim coach Jimmy Williams claims breach of contract on an oral hiring agreement.

Jake Grovum

Former Gopher men’s basketball assistant and interim head coach Jimmy Williams will file suit against the University, the Board of Regents and Athletics Director Joel Maturi by early next week, Williams and his attorneys announced Thursday.

The lawsuit will seek to either force the University to reinstate Williams as an assistant coach or for the University to pay him damages in excess of $50,000, according to a civil complaint.

In April, Williams and current head coach Tubby Smith established an oral agreement when Smith offered Williams an assistant coaching position at the University, according to the complaint.

Because Smith was acting as an agent of the University, the complaint alleges, the University entered a binding contract with

Williams, which was later breached.

Smith interviewed Williams, but never entered into any agreement and there was no employment agreement made between Williams and the University, Mark Rotenberg, University general counsel, said in a statement.

“The University intends to vigorously defend this case, which we believe is without merit,” Rotenberg said.

“Tubby is not an emperor, he’s a head basketball coach,” Rotenberg said in an interview.

Smith has no authority to make employment offers under University policy, Rotenberg said, and any new hires must be approved by Maturi.

Richard Hunegs, Williams’ attorney, said his client was under the impression Smith had the authority to hire him based on their conversations leading up to their agreement.

Smith is being “held out” by Maturi and the University as head coach, presumably with authority to hire his own assistants, Hunegs said.

“I don’t think any athletics director in the United States of America is out hiring the assistants for their coaches,” he said.

Whether Smith had authority to hire Williams is partially irrelevant, David Larson, a professor at Hamline University Law School, said.

“Regardless of what limits there were on Tubby Smith’s actual authority,” he said, “if he had the apparent authority to hire his assistant coaches without limitation, then that may be a problem for the University.”

The burden is on the plaintiff to convince the court that the University did something to “cloak” Smith with that kind of power, Larson said.

If Smith made a promise that he knew or should have known Williams would rely on, that could lead Williams to make professionally detrimental decisions or turn down other career opportunities, then legally, “it’s a real case,” Larson said.

While under the impression he had been hired by the University, Williams said he resigned from his assistant coaching position at Oklahoma State University, where he had one year remaining.

Williams discussed his leaving Oklahoma State with Smith after he accepted the position at the University, and Smith offered to personally deliver the news to Oklahoma State officials, Williams said.

The University didn’t encourage Williams to leave his previous coaching position, Rotenberg said.

Ultimately, the case is reliant on a number of facts heavily disputed by both sides, Larson said, and it will hinge on whoever presents the strongest argument.

“Now it’s going to come down to who can establish the truth,” he said. “That’s why trials get so interesting.”

The University never hired Williams because of “significant” NCAA rules violations while he was with the University in the 1970s and 1980s. Both Maturi and Smith “could not overlook Williams’ significant prior record of infractions on our campus,” Rotenberg said.

Williams and Hunegs dispute the University’s claims about the severity of past rule violations.

“(The NCAA) reassured me over and over again there is no impediment of any university hiring Jimmy Williams,” Hunegs said. “There is no legal or NCAA impediment.”

Williams’ attorneys estimated it could be a year or longer before a possible trial would begin.