Geno Ford, Bradley, and Kent State: what does it all mean?

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Hustle Belt's legal correspondent, thechuck_2112, takes a look at recent developments in the Geno Ford case and what effect they might have on the college sports landscape.

As Matt Sussman reported last week, an Ohio judge awarded Kent State $1.2 million in damages from former coach Geno Ford for breaching his contract by leaving for Bradley University. This amount represents what remained on Ford's contract when he bolted -- 4 years at $300,000 per year. Specifically, the judge held that although Kent State had given Ford permission to speak with Bradley about the Braves' job opening, Ford signed with Bradley without being released from his contract with the Flashes.

Geno Ford's Buyout Clause

"Now wait," you may be thinking, "isn't this why all coaches have a buyout clause? And doesn't the new school always pay the buyout?" Well, that's usually how it works. But it wasn't what happened here. According to former Kent State AD Laing Kennedy, when Gary Waters, Stan Heath, and Jim Christian departed, a check from the new school arrived in a week or two. But a month went by without any word from Ford or Bradley, so Kent State filed suit in Portage County court. And although the new school usually pays off the buyout, the buyout is legally the obligation of the coach -- hence Kent State suing Ford.

It's rare for a school to sue a former coach for breach of contract, but not unheard of. The most famous example is West Virginia's suit against Rich Rodriguez, which sought the full $4 million buyout on Rodriguez's contract when he left for Michigan. That case eventually settled, with Rodriguez agreeing to pay the full buyout after a judge found the contract to be enforceable. A similar case was brought by Marist against its former basketball coach, Matt Bradley, who left to become the head coach at James Madison and went so far as to recruit players he had already persuaded to commit to Marist. (Four players eventually joined him at JMU.) Marist won its claim, but was awarded no damages, as the court found it had not suffered economically.

So lawsuits by schools against coaches happen from time to time. Kent State's victory against Ford is unlikely to cause big waves in the NCAA coaching world, but it could embolden smaller schools who see their coaches poached to file suit when they otherwise might not. After all, $1.2 million is a lot of money on an athletic budget the size of Kent State's.

Kent State's Claim Against Bradley

Much more interesting -- and possibly much more important going forward -- is Kent State's remaining claim in the case. Geno Ford and Bradley were both named as defendants, with Ford sued for breach of contract and Bradley sued for what's called tortious interference with contract. The gist of a tortious interference claim is that if Alan and Bob have a contract, and Carl convinces Bob to breach the contract with Alan, Alan can sue Carl for interfering with Alan's legal rights. Tortious interference is a relatively common claim in employment disputes, particularly when a new employer convinces a valuable employee (e.g., a top researcher at a biotech company) to leave his old employer.

In order to prove its tortious interference claim, Kent State must prove:

-- That Kent State had a valid contract with Ford;

-- That Bradley knew of the contract;

-- That Bradley intentionally caused the breach of the contract; and

-- That Bradley lacked any justification for causing the breach.

The first two elements seem open-and-shut: Kent State must have had a valid contract with Ford, otherwise they couldn't win on their breach of contract claim against him. And surely Bradley knew of the contract, because it asked Kent State's permission to speak with Ford about the opening.

The other two elements will be tougher. Taking Kent State's allegations at face value, they claim that Bradley knew Ford hadn't been released from his contract, but signed him anyway, thus intentionally causing a breach of contract. But Bradley will likely argue that it had no idea of Ford's status with Kent State, and that it signed Ford based on a good-faith belief that it had permission to do so.

Lack of justification is even more nebulous because it involves two words lawyers rarely like to hear: "balancing test." Under Ohio law, a jury has to weigh seven separate factors to determine if Bradley lacked justification to cause a breach of contract. They're too detailed to list here, but they provide Bradley with a fair amount of wiggle room it wouldn't have if this were a bright-line rule.

(A classic example of justification, though it doesn't apply here, is inducing the breach to serve the public interest. This was the issue in the real-life story that served as the basis for the movie The Insider: CBS intentionally caused whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand to breach his confidentiality agreement with a tobacco company, then argued that Wigand's disclosure of the tobacco industry's misrepresentations was in the public interest, meaning the breach was justified.)

So What Does the Claim Against Bradley Mean?

Suing Bradley for tortious interference with Ford's contract appears to be nearly unprecedented in college athletics. In the Marist-Matt Brady case I mentioned above, Marist also sued JMU for tortious interference, but JMU settled out of court with no admission of wrongdoing. The same thing is likely to happen here; Bradley can probably throw some money at the problem and make it go away quietly.

But if it goes to trial -- the current start date is October 7 -- and Kent State wins, this case could have far-reaching implications for the way college coaches are hired. It appears that Bradley did what schools normally do: they asked for permission to speak to Ford, then hired him. A finding that this constitutes tortious interference could make schools far more careful about how they hire new coaches, and perhaps whom they hire as well -- if Kent State is successful, it could cause other schools (especially mid-majors) with high-performing programs to be much more aggressive when their coaches are hired away, which could in turn discourage schools from hiring those coaches in the first place.

Thus concludes what I believe to be Hustle Belt's first extended discussion of legal issues. (Thankfully, we don't cover Penn State.)

And, if you happen to be interested, the judge's ruling against Geno Ford can be found here.

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