In a 69-page opinion issued on Thursday, arbitrator Mark Irvings came down on the University of Connecticut for its firing of men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie and awarded Ollie $11.2 million. Unless it quickly, and successfully, petitions a federal court, UConn must pay Ollie within 10 business days.
The opinion did not dispute that recruiting violations occurred during Ollie’s tenure but sharply criticized the NCAA’s probe of Ollie, cited “due process deficiencies” on UConn’s part and questioned the severity the school’s punishment. He found the process resembling something of a kangaroo court.
Ollie, 49, led the Huskies to a national championship in 2014 and amassed a 127-79 record over six seasons. In 2019, the NCAA vacated the victories from the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons and issued a three-year show cause order against Ollie, who is now the coach of Overtime Elite. (The order will expire in July.)
At the time, both the NCAA and UConn suspected possible recruiting violations connected to the Huskies. They included former UConn (and NBA) star Ray Allen calling prized recruit Hamidou Diallo, hosting recruit James Akinjo, and various other workouts for, and meals shared with, recruits. Irvings stressed that, individually, many of these incidents were “likely Level III violations under NCAA regulations.” That means, under NCAA definitions, they “provided no more than a minimal recruiting, competitive or other advantage.”
UConn concluded that Ollie had failed to promote compliance. In March 2018, the university terminated Ollie “with cause,” a designation that relieved the school of paying what remained on his contract, more than $10 million. Ollie had a hearing with UConn administrators, but, Irvings writes, the meeting was “short” and devoid of details.
To justify the designation, UConn had to meet collectively bargained standards. Ollie wasn’t a professor, but his contract guaranteed him “the same personnel benefits as those currently provided to the members of the University of Connecticut Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).” In other words, Ollie had the same protections as unionized faculty members. This became a crucial point, Irvings surmised, since UConn’s termination letter omitted reference to certain specifics the school would later raise—too late, the arbitrator found—in hearings.
“UConn’s dismissal of Kevin Ollie,” Irvings wrote, “was predicated on an incomplete investigation, inadequate process, and ultimately a collection of unproven or minor, isolated infractions for which termination was far too severe a sanction. The entire decision was tinged with UConn’s self-interest of avoiding additional institutional penalties and escaping the obligation to pay Ollie the amounts agreed to in his [contract].”
UConn’s reliance on the NCAA, Irvings further underscored, betrayed procedural safeguards owed to Ollie. Irvings, a seasoned arbitrator who handles MLB-MLBPA player grievances, also offered extensive criticisms of the NCAA’s investigation. Some of his due process critiques resemble those often raised of Title IX proceedings held by colleges. Among his key takeaways:
- “NCAA proceedings bear little relationship to an impartial adjudicatory process. The enforcement staff does not take witness testimony under oath and witnesses are not subject to cross-examination. Cross-examination has long been recognized as an essential element of due process because it has the salutary effect of incentivizing witnesses to not make unsubstantiated or exaggerated claims, and it serves the purpose of clarifying ambiguities or exposing bias and incapacity.”
- “When one reads the interview of Glen Miller [an assistant coach fired by Ollie], it is apparent that the enforcement staff was not focused on getting reliable evidence but rather on proving violations were committed by Ollie. At various times Miller denied actual knowledge or equivocated about statements, but the staff repeatedly pressed him to finally make a definitive claim. The enforcement staff did not engage in a serious and critical analysis designed to test Miller’s motivation for providing damaging accusations about Ollie . . . the NCAA gave Miller blanket immunity.”
- “Another major structural deficiency of the NCAA process is that representatives of the member institution have the right to sit in on all witness interviews. This is despite the fact that the institution itself is supposedly a potential target of the investigation. In contrast, a coach such as Ollie, who is the focal point of the investigation, is not allowed to have any representatives in the interviews or to even suggest potential witnesses to be interviewed.”
- “UConn not only did not seek to protect Ollie in any way, but it essentially turned into the most vigorous prosecutor.”
- “The individuals interviewed by the NCAA were not sworn under oath; the interview transcripts were compiled by NCAA staff rather than an independent court reporter; and some statements used by the University to support the allegations against Ollie . . . were unsigned. Key witnesses changed their statements . . . all of these interviews were conducted without any opportunity for Ollie or the AAUP to conduct cross-examination.”
Some UConn compliance staff acknowledged Ollie had, in fact, promoted a culture of compliance. “Ollie made his staff available for training on NCAA regulations . . . Ollie made compliance a regular meeting agenda item and was diligent in making staff aware of requirements and encouraging staff to contact the Compliance Office for guidance.”
Likewise, Irvings noted, UConn fired Ollie for cause when other coaches accused of similar misconduct hadn’t been fired, let alone with cause.
“At The Ohio State University,” Irvings explained, “football coach Urban Meyer was cited for a Level III violation when he arranged a call between a prospect and his former quarterback at the University of Florida, Tim Tebow. Meyer was not disciplined by the NCAA or his institution. At UConn, just a few months after Ollie’s firing, [women’s basketball coach] Geno Auriemma arranged for NBA star Kyrie Irving to visit his house while recruits for the women’s team were present. Pursuant to the NCAA’s direction, [UConn] issued Auriemma a Letter of Admonishment, but no discipline followed.”
The arbitration is an impressive victory for Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen of Madsen, Prestley & Parenteau LLC. They took on a large state university and won.
The “win” can be challenged by UConn. The school has the right to petition a federal judge to vacate the arbitration award. However, under federal law, judges are obligated to apply a deferential standard of review. There are only narrow grounds for a successful petition. They include a showing that the award was a result of corruption or fraud, the arbitrator refused to hear evidence or made other glaring mistakes, the arbitrator exceeded authority or the ruling was so illogical it exhibits what is often coined a “manifest disregard of the law.”