Decision against U a lesson for employers, job-seekers

Gopher coach Tubby Smith
Coach Tubby Smith of the Minnesota Golden Gophers as his team plays the Texas Longhorns during the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Legal experts say the $1.25 million jury verdict against the University of Minnesota over a coaching hire provides some critical reminders for job-seekers and employers.

A Hennepin County jury this week sided with an assistant coach at another school who thought Golden Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith had offered him a job. The university said there was never a firm, formal offer, but the jury disagreed.

Jimmy Williams was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State when he said Tubby Smith offered him a job in 2007.

Williams said he quit his job in Oklahoma as a result, but then the university rescinded the offer after Athletics Director Joel Maturi raised concerns over NCAA recruiting violations in Williams' past.

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During an eight-day trial, Smith said he never finalized a job offer to Williams and never told him to quit his job. But with little or no paper trail it was pretty much Smith's word versus Williams'.

It's absolutely everything in writing today. The old way of doing business -- the handshakes, the promises -- doesn't work.

Twin Cities employment law attorney Marshall Tanick said both sides could have helped their cases if they had documents and other records to lay out exactly what did or did not happen.

"The lesson is, when possible, be more precise, have documentation, have contemporary notes, have witnesses to telephone conversations, write emails confirming things after meetings, and try to be clear as possible with the understanding that somebody else may have to try to figure what was intended," Tanick said.

In this case, jurors had to try to divine what went on three years ago, when Williams sought the job at the University of Minnesota.

Tanick said Williams' decision to quit his then-current job likely convinced jurors Williams believed he had a job for sure at Minnesota with Smith.

Tanick said the university's problem was it couldn't prove the absence of an offer to Williams.

"The problem here isn't that the university didn't document the deal. The problem is there was no documentation that there was no deal," Tanick said.

When it comes to high-profile jobs, most employers are very careful to avoid misunderstandings about employment offers.

"They will say something like we're making you a job offer subject to a background check and approval by our board," said Stephen Cooper, a local employment law attorney.

"You know they'll have two or three things in there and the applicant will know that," he said. "And because the applicant knows, the applicant will not say to his employer, 'I'm out of here.'"

During the trial there was much discussion about just how college coaches are hired. Williams said he believed Smith had the authority to assure him of a job and that he thought Smith's word was binding.

But Marty Greenberg, founder of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University, said Williams is in the business and should know that's not the way things are done in college sports anymore.

Greenberg has represented several college coaches and he said it's standard practice for athletic directors -- and sometimes boards of trustees -- to have to approve hiring decisions these days.

"It's absolutely everything in writing today. The old way of doing business -- the handshakes, the promises -- doesn't work," he said.

Greenberg said everyone in the college coaching ranks should know that.

"I find it absolutely unbelievable that anybody would rely on one conversation with a coach and then come to the conclusion he had an absolute binding contract for a job," he said. "That's not the way it works."

The university has indicated it may appeal the jury's verdict or take other actions aimed at reversing it.