In depth: The Jimmy Williams lawsuit

Jake Grovum

Jimmy Williams thought he had secured a job on head basketball coach Tubby Smith’s staff.

The former Gophers assistant and interim head basketball coach sold his home, resigned his assistant coaching position at Oklahoma State University and made plans to move to Minnesota.

The University claims no offer was made and now both sides are preparing to go to trial.

Contract Controversy

Following an interview between Smith and Williams, the University entered into a contract with Williams set to pay him $200,000 per year, according to the civil complaint. That contract was later breached.

Williams and his attorneys are now pursuing two ends: to reinstate the contract and allow Williams to assume his role as assistant coach, or to recover monetary damages.

There was no position offered or contract agreed upon, Mark Rotenberg , University general counsel, said.

The details of the contract are not included in the complaint but David Larson , a law professor at Hamline Law School, said for any contract extending beyond one year to be enforceable it must be in writing.

Courts are also reluctant to order the reinstatement of an individual in employment lawsuits, Larson said.

“The fear is the relationship has been so soured that it’s not going to be very productive,” he said. “It’s not impossible, but to actually get that ordered is going to be difficult.”

The University has already finalized decisions about assistant basketball coaches, Rotenberg said.

Issue of Authority

While Williams claims he was offered an assistant coaching position by Smith, the issue of whether the head coach had the authority – actual or apparent – to hire coaches will be important in the lawsuit.

It is University policy that all hiring decisions must be approved by athletics director Joel Maturi, Rotenberg said.

Regardless, Williams’ attorneys claim Smith and the University made “clear and definite promises” to their client, and represented Smith as having the authority to make employment offers, according to the complaint.

To contend Smith had the apparent authority to do so, the University must have actively portrayed him in that light, Larson said.

“(The University) won’t be liable just because Williams thought it should happen this way,” he said.

Williams claims not only that it was reasonable to assume Smith had the authority, but that it is commonplace in the NCAA for head coaches to hire their own assistants.

Despite this, if a head coach hiring assistants without oversight is rare, “Jimmy Williams’ case becomes a lot harder,” Larson said.

“Was it reasonable to believe that a college coach had carte blanche authority to hire an assistant without any review?” he said. “That’s going to be a real factual question.”

The complaint also alleges that through its actions or silence, the University allowed Williams to believe he had the job.

Williams was informed less than 24 hours after his interview with Smith that he would not be hired, Rotenberg said.

As part of these charges, Williams’ attorneys are also seeking a favorable decision for them based on fairness, but that’s “always a long shot,” Larson said.

“You’re asking a court to try and intervene because something happened that was so unjust it’s intolerable,” he said. “Basically, you’re throwing yourself on the mercy of the court.”

Negligence

In the dealings with Williams, the University and Maturi provided Williams with “false information” leading him to believe Smith could make job offers, according to the complaint.

The University, through its actions, “failed to use reasonable care or competence,” in communicating Smith’s true authority to Williams, the complaint alleges.

The University has pointed to past NCAA violations while Williams was at the University nearly 30 years ago as the reason Maturi and Smith both decided not to hire Williams.

The complaint also claims the University failed to investigate Williams’ past before offering him the position.

The University maintains there was no agreement reached with Williams, Rotenberg said.

Defamation

Williams is also seeking damages in response to statements in which Maturi denied a job offer was made and referenced past NCAA infractions, according to the complaint.

The statements have “detrimentally affected Williams” and resulted in “embarrassment and humiliation,” the complaint alleges.

The University does not believe there are any facts to support the defamation charge, Rotenberg said.

“With defamation you start with truth as an absolute defense,” Larson said. “If what you’re saying is true, there’s no liability.”

The Overall Case

“It basically boils down to this,” Rotenberg said, “Williams and the University never agreed to his employment in the basketball program.”

Williams should not have “relied on his job interview” as a basis to make lifestyle decisions, he added.

Despite the University’s denial of a contract, Williams’ attorney Richard Hunegs said there will be strong evidence that an offer was made.

With so much of the case relying on specific facts, Larson said when each side begins to share information the case might not make it to trial.

“There’s going to be facts that are determinative on some of these issues,” he said. “Depending on how these facts go, liability is going to appear pretty clear or nonexistent.”