Coaching reVOL-UTion: Schiano, Currie, and what school’s lawyers are analyzing right now

December 05, 2017 0 COMMENTS

The Tennessee coaching search has produced high drama over the past two weeks. For Vol fans like myself, it has felt at times like absolute torture and at other times like just a little bit of torture. “Vol-nation” was in better spirits after the hiring of Phillip Fulmer as Athletic Director was announced, and many are pleased with the selection of master-recruiter and talented Alabama Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as the next head coach of the Vols. Details surfaced early Thursday that Pruitt’s new contract is for 6-years at roughly $4 million per year.

Despite this stability, however, the University of Tennessee is far from out of the woods. That is because the administration is staring down the barrel of two potentially costly legal battles over separate memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with would-have-been head coach Greg Schiano and outgoing Athletic Director John Currie. As a legal blogger and avid college football fan, I have never been more excited to bring you legal analysis.

Schiano’s MOU

As you might recall, the Schiano hire at Tennessee was torpedoed after fans and boosters responded in an overwhelmingly negative way via social media and some alleged behind-the-scenes protests. It was later reported that Schiano may seek compensation for Tennessee backing out of an MOU that was allegedly signed by then-athletic director Currie. For starters, the biggest problem in giving any decided legal opinion is that we don’t have a copy of the MOU. In the absence of the actual Schiano MOU, most have looked to the MOU for current UT head basketball coach Rick Barnes for guidance about what might be in Schiano’s agreement. The Barnes MOU contains basic contract language, i.e., offer, acceptance, description of duties, compensation, and termination provisions. It is essentially a legally binding agreement and not an agreement to agree, even though it does contemplate the parties would sign a more detailed agreement later. The MOU contains standard for-cause/no-cause termination provisions outlining the parties’ duties in the event of a separation. The Schiano MOU is likely structured similarly.

While initial reports stated that Currie signed the document, reports have since surfaced that UT Chancellor Beverly Davenport did not sign the MOU, leaving some question about its enforceability. The question remains whether Currie’s purported signature on the MOU makes the document legally binding when UT’s top brass didn’t sign the agreement. The Barnes MOU states it would constitute a legally binding agreement “when fully executed.” I added the emphasis to “fully” because of the report that Currie’s is the only Tennessee signature purportedly on the agreement. By contrast, the Barnes agreement required the signatures of the athletic director, the chancellor, and the treasurer and CFO. That is consistent with Article IV, Section 8, of the UT Bylaws, which provide in pertinent part “all contracts . . . and other instruments of legal obligation shall be executed by the President or another University Officer after any required legal and fiscal review.” The position of athletic director—which Currie held—isn’t identified as a “University Officer” capable of executing such agreements. Thus, blank signature blocks for the university officers on Schiano’s MOU would tend to support the argument that although “executed,” the agreement wasn’t “fully” executed and therefore isn’t enforceable.

Schiano, however, may argue Currie had sufficient or at least apparent authority to bind the university so that Schiano could legitimately rely on Currie’s signature alone in believing the deal was done. Additional evidence about the university’s previous practice in such circumstances, such as other documents similar to the Barnes MOU, would be necessary to give a more definitive take on Schiano’s chances of success. But you can bet he and his agent are likely to push the issue, given that big money is at stake. A “no cause” termination would bring the MOU’s buyout clause into play. The Barnes MOU provided for a buyout worth $1 million per contract year remaining in the event of a no-cause termination. That was seemingly based on Barnes’ $2.5 million annual salary. Schiano’s MOU was likely worth much more, which would most likely result in a similarly higher buyout. Given the circumstances under which the deal crumbled, it is difficult to see how UT could argue it had cause to terminate the agreement. All facts pertinent to cause, including Schiano’s coaching history and The Washington Post article linking him to the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State, were all well-known before negotiations began.

If Schiano presses the issue, UT will have to weigh its options in deciding whether to fight or try to negotiate a mutual resolution. That, too, could prove costly. A recent example can be found just down the road in Gainesville, Florida, in the form of (UT’s SEC East rival) the University of Florida’s termination of former head coach Jim McElwain. That termination, which was “for cause,” has reportedly resulted in a settlement paying McElwain roughly $4 million of his $12.9 million buyout. Since Schiano and McElwain reportedly share the same agent, the success of settlement negotiations in other termination cases may embolden Schiano to at least kick the tires with UT to see what he can get. 

Currie’s employment status

The fallout from the Schiano debacle is far from over. Just this past Friday, Currie was “suspended with pay” by Chancellor Davenport. Despite “suspending” and not “terminating” Currie, Davenport hired former UT head coach and Hall-of-Famer Phillip Fulmer to assume the AD duties full-time, effective immediately. The hiring of Currie’s replacement while he is still on staff likely means UT administrators and counsel are conducting an internal investigation to determine whether they can fire him for causea decision that may alleviate the burden of having to pay Currie’s own buyout, which reportedly stands at $5.5 million. Whether the university can establish he acted outside of his authority with regard to the botched hiring of Schiano and his MOU or whether Currie’s desperate “Hail Mary” attempts to hire Mike “the Pirate” Leach to succeed Butch Jones was the final nail in his coffin remains to be seen.

Remember, while all of this potential cash exchange plays out on your Twitter feed, Tennessee has essentially agreed to honor former coach Butch Jones’ $8.25 million buyout. Oh, to have been a football coach where “success” is measured by a committee and under-performance guarantees you money! Whatever, man, just Swing Your Sword.

Train ‘em up

September 12, 2017 0 COMMENTS

If you’re a poor soul who’s followed enough of my posts to spot patterns, you’ll spot one here. Maybe I’m a broken record, maybe I’m simple-minded, or maybe I really like baseball.  Personal development career

Baseball speaks to me. The U.S. is still a blip in the long course of human history. We cobbled together our identity from bits of preceding cultures, but baseball is one thing we claim as uniquely ours. Annie Savoy, Susan Sarandon’s character in Bull Durham, put it well:

“Walt Whitman once said, ‘I see great things in baseball. It’s our game, the American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.’ You can look it up.”

I never go very long without giving Bull Durham another look and, with the Majors moving into the stretch run, it’s been on my brain. Bull Durham serves you a tale of life at baseball’s lower rungs; the spring, summer, and fall rhythms of my adopted Carolinas; and the humor of dime-store philosophy. It’s also irreverent and bawdy, which naturally holds my attention. (I still laugh at the Little League coaches back in the day who took their teams to see the movie without doing their due diligence; those kids got an eyeful and an earful.)

Bull Durham is also a story of molding talent and potential into professional success, which is an angle I suspect interests our readers. The movie’s wise sage, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), is a veteran minor league catcher with not-quite-enough talent but a Hall of Fame professional bearing. His apprentice, Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), is a flamethrowing trainwreck of a young pitcher who’s as outlandish as his name. The big league club dispatched Crash to school Nuke in the ways of elite baseball and basic adulthood, and the two soon threw off a bit of a Yoda/Luke vibe (if Yoda were a switch-hitting whiskey aficionado and Luke had the maturity of a drunk baby).

Even still, it worked. Nuke caught on, learned to harness his wild pitches, and the big club pulled him out of the bus leagues up to the majors. Why? I think we have to credit Crash’s unconventional, wild, and uncompromising approach, which mixed odd philosophy with practical advice and forced Nuke to fail (and thus learn).

Consider the following examples that we can all adapt from time to time:

  • During a conference on the mound, Crash ordered Nuke, “Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground ballsit’s more democratic.” Very good advice. We all have other people around us to carry the load. If Nuke didn’t slow down, he may have killed his arm and spent the next three decades selling encyclopedias.
  • By that point in their lives, Crash had forgotten more baseball than Nuke might ever learn; still, he waived off Crash’s pitchesa huge no-no for just about any pitcher.  Sure enough, the next batter blasted a home run. Again on the mound, Nuke wondered, “God, that sucker teed off on that like he knew I was going to throw a fastball!” Crash turned and said, “He did know … I told him.” Lesson given, lesson learned. Nuke dutifully threw the pitches Crash called from then on. Recognize that advice is meant to channel your potential, not to hold back your supposed natural brilliance.
  • Crash didn’t limit Nuke’s lessons to baseball. There were tips on handling the sports media. There were tips about life in the majors. And there’s this gem, which isn’t all that meaningful but is too good to leave out: “When you get in a fight with a drunk you don’t hit him with your pitching hand.”  Hey, you never know what advice is going to come in handy when.

So, dear readers, which one are you? If you are Crash, are you willing to take some time and give someone the chance to fail, all in the service of making them a better person on the other end? If you are Nuke, are you willing to recognize experience and wisdom, take your lumps, and emerge better for it? I’m willing to bet that the most successful mentoring, managing, and training occurs when one is Crash, the other is Nuke, and both are crazy enough to make it work.

I just don’t think I can look that up.

What we learned: talent placement lessons from UT football and U.S. Ryder Cup team

October 03, 2016 0 COMMENTS

Sports are about players making plays. Coaches and managers can break down film, scheme, and motivate all they want. But, when the game is on the line, execution is all that matters. As the ole ball coach said, “It’s not about the X’s and O’s, it’s about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s.” This truth was on full display this weekend in two, wholly unrelated sports: college football and … golf.  Buisness start

On Saturday, the Georgia Bulldogs hosted the Tennessee Volunteers “between the hedges” in Athens, Georgia, and the last 30 seconds was likely the wildest ending to a sports contest you’ll ever see. If you didn’t see the game, and have been under a rock all weekend, Georgia threw a 50-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left to take the lead, only to have Tennessee throw a 50-yard “Hail Mary” with no time on the clock to win the game. The ending defies all attempts at written description. Do yourself a favor and click the link above, and watch all the videos. (Full disclosure: I am a Tennessee fan. A hopeless, oft-heartbroken Tennessee fan.)

For all the excitement on the gridiron, the story begins and ends with the man who caught the game-winning pass for the Vols, Jauan Jennings. Jennings came to Tennessee in 2015 as a 4-star recruit as a dual-threat quarterback out of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Jennings also was a two-sport athlete, earning looks from several schools for hoops after he was named MVP of the basketball state tournament in his junior year. Jennings was a promising QB prospect with a solid arm and superior running ability. But, Coach Jones and the UT staff had other ideas, converting Jennings into a wide receiver shortly after he stepped on the practice field in Knoxville. To his credit, however, rather than pout or request a transfer, Jennings took the challenge to become the best wide receiver he could be. Boy, has that decision paid off! Just last week, Jennings burned future NFL draft pick Jalen Tabor for the go-ahead touchdown against the Florida Gators. And now, he basks in the glory of catching the pass that kept Tennessee in the driver’s seat for winning the SEC East. For Jennings, it’s an inspiring story of trust and commitment. For the coaches, it’s a story of knowing your players and putting them in the best position to succeed.

A similar story of placement and execution played out on the links on Sunday, as America recaptured the Ryder Cup over Europe, winning by the biggest margin in more than 30 years. Fittingly, the final, cup-clenching point was earned by Captain’s pick Ryan Moore, whom USA Team Captain Davis Love III chose over Bubba Watson, the seventh-ranked player in the world. The potentially controversial pick proved fruitful as Moore earned Team USA 2.5 points over the weekend, including a win over European veteran Lee Westwood.

3 tips for employers

The wisdom of these coaches and captains can be replicated every day in your workforce. Your first goal as a manager or business owner is to identify an individual with the will to succeed on their own. No matter how good a business person you are, if your team members aren’t committed to advancing themselves, it’s unlikely they will see the benefit in contributing to your goals, either.

Second, focus on the facts. Too often during hiring, employers will ask questions that don’t pertain to the needs of the job. Take Jennings, for example. While he may have desired to be a quarterback, the facts pointed the coaches to another position (i.e., tall, jumps well, good hands, great speed = wide receiver!). Focusing on tangible and intangible qualities that have the ability to affect the outcome of a play (or an assignment) will streamline your hiring process. Plus, not straying off into topics that don’t matter will eliminate the possibility of asking irrelevant questions that can expose your company to liability.

Finally, check references. Players have ready-made reference sheets in the form of wins, losses, and personal stats. Your applicants and employees wont be as easy to evaluate. The best thing is to call on those who have previously worked with them. Typically, the employee will provide you with a list of references. If that list seems suspect, or if the people you call don’t have anything good to say about a candidate, that should be a sure sign he/she likely won’t be a great contributor to your goals, either.

Taking time to build a team with the right kind of talent in the right places can help put your company in a position to succeed.