The involvement of attorneys is an aspect of the University of Connecticut’s response to the NCAA’s allegations of recruiting violations that has been largely overlooked. The university, of course, was represented by counsel. Perhaps more significantly, UConn head coach Jim Calhoun and former assistant coaches Patrick Sellers and Beau Archibald were each represented by their own attorneys.
This scenario has become increasingly common, and necessary, in collegiate athletics. When coaches are faced with NCAA allegations, hiring personal counsel must be considered. Here are a few of the main reasons:
1. Conflicts of Interest
On the surface, it appears that the interests of the university and its coaches would be aligned. But often times, that’s not the case. First and foremost, a university will protect its own interests. Universities typically deal with NCAA violations through self-imposed penalties. These penalties, similar to a plea bargain, allow the university to minimize the risk of unknown NCAA sanctions and also may allow for a more expedient resolution. However, a coach’s interests may not be served. Admitting to NCAA violations, especially if the coach has a reasonable defense, may not make sense for a coach.
2. The NCAA’s Emphasis on Coaches’ Responsibility for Compliance
As demonstrated with Pete Carroll and USC, the NCAA is emphasizing the role of the head coach in compliance. The NCAA is unlikely to accept a coach’s defense that he or she was unaware that a violation has occurred. Rather the NCAA will consider if the coach should have known about a violation.
In Calhoun’s case, the NCAA personally charged him with violations, which he strenuously denied. Some criticized Calhoun, equating his denials with an unwillingness to accountable for his program. However, Calhoun’s response to the NCAA was more likely a reflection of the fact that Calhoun was represented by his own attorney, not the university’s counsel. Although the university supported Calhoun’s position, his personal attorney was able to advocate for Coach Calhoun in strong and decisive tone. The university, with its long-term interest in cooperating with the NCAA, could not have provided such a strong defense for Coach Calhoun.
3. Coaching Contracts
Many coaches have provisions in their contracts that allow the university to fire the coach for cause, without paying the remaining years on the contract, if the coach and/or program is found to have committed violations of NCAA rules (typically major violations). Although a university may choose not to exercise this clause, a coach must be careful not to give the university an opportunity to escape from the terms of a contract. Therefore, a strong defense to NCAA allegations may be in the best interest of a coach from a contractual perspective.
4. Assistant Coaches
For Archibald and Sellers, the need for personal counsel was more obvious. Having been terminated by the university and blamed for many of the violations, these coaches need counsel to advocate for their interests. Although they are will not likely coach at UConn again, the NCAA’s findings could have an effect on their ability to find future employment in collegiate athletics. With the competitive nature of securing assistant coaching jobs, assistants cannot afford to be perceived as damaged goods. Accordingly, the coaches need representation in NCAA proceedings to eliminate, or minimize the severity of the NCAA’s penalties.