Paid to leave: ETSU pays three former coaches, over AD$700,000 this year | WJHL
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The athletics program at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) faces a hefty bill this drill for coaches and staff who no longer serve the university.
News Channel 11 has investigated the athletics budget to see how much the practice line item typically costs and how much it has cost over the past two years as the university has seen three resignations and one dismissal – all with payments to departing employees of at least one year’s salary.
The most recent of these was ETSU’s decision to pay former women’s basketball coach Simon Harris $150,000 after he resigned on Aug. 15. Harris was the subject of an internal investigation, and ETSU President Brian Noland wrote on August 1 that Harris should be fired for cause.
Harris’ contract shows that if he resigned or was terminated for cause, he would not be owed any money, and Noland did not shy away from what he called “inadmissible” actions of Harris in her August 1 termination letter.
“Your conduct…brings and will likely continue to bring the University considerable public discredit, embarrassment, contempt, scandal and/or ridicule.”
ETSU President Brian Noland, Letter to Women’s Basketball Coach Simon Harris, August 1, 2022
Just two weeks later, Harris had his severance package with not just cash, but a clause prohibiting ETSU from making “negative, derogatory, or unfavorable statements” about him. The severance deal, and ETSU’s near-total silence since, came despite an investigation finding it violated Title IX by firing two players in November 2021 for an unproven sexual relationship, then allegedly protected another. player who allegedly physically assaulted a minor in a fight in mid-December.
“The university will not make … any negative, derogatory or adverse oral or written statement or representation of or regarding Coach Harris.”
Severance agreement and release of Simon Harris, August 17, 2022
Harris’ payment decision came just days after the university agreed to pay Scott Carter, who resigned Aug. 1 – the same day ETSU announced it would be firing Harris – one year’s salary . This payment totals more than $213,000, and the university has also agreed to maintain its obligation to provide last-dollar scholarships to all of Carter’s children who choose to attend ETSU.
These recent commitments are in addition to payments currently being made to former men’s basketball coach Jason Shay and fired women’s basketball coach Brittany Ezell, Harris’ predecessor.
In total, ETSU is paying about three-quarters of a million dollars over the next year to these four people. The only one to be paid according to the terms of their contract is Ezell.
Most college coaching contracts include clauses protecting the coach if he is terminated without cause. Posting losing records, as Ezell did in the years leading up to his dismissal, was not among the factors allowing for dismissal for cause.
The ETSU had very little say in its decisions to pay Carter and Harris despite their voluntary resignations. ETSU President Brian Noland and Acting Athletic Director Richard Sander both refused to go on camera to discuss the decision to pay Harris in particular:
“Based on the advice of legal counsel, ETSU has acted to minimize disruption to our student-athletes and to allow university leaders to focus their full attention on providing our sporting community with the support it needs. to go forward.”
ETSU Communications Director Jessica Vodden, September 13
where it all started
ETSU’s current string of payouts for not working began with Ezell’s firing on March 8, 2021 following a third consecutive lost season for the Lady Bucs. Ezell’s teams had gone 23-58 combined in the three years since she signed a five-year contract in April 2018 after a 20-13 season.
By then, ETSU’s men’s basketball team – led by then-coach Jason Shay – had become the center of a controversy that garnered national attention after a Photo by News Channel 11’s Jesse Krull showed the team kneeling to the national anthem during a February 15 game. in Chattanooga.
By the time the freshman coach had led the Bucs to a 13-12 overall record, including a quarterfinal victory in the conference tournament, the kneeling incident — and more specifically its aftermath — had acquired national notoriety.
The players’ actions and Shay’s unwavering support for them had drawn heavy criticism from some ETSU administrators, state legislators, community members and sports propellants. Some community members stepped up to support what they saw as the players’ constitutional right to speak out.
In the aftermath, Shay quit, announcing the news on March 30.
While Shay’s contract included language that required him to pay $300,000 to ETSU if he resigned before his April 2023 end date, his separation agreement shows he would receive $450,000, or two years’ salary, until the end of this contract period. The salary was guaranteed even if Shay got another coaching job, which he quickly did at Wake Forest under his ETSU predecessor Steve Forbes, essentially giving him two paychecks for the majority of that two-year term.
Limit the damage?
ETSU announced two quick hires in succession. Desmond Oliver got his first head coaching gig, leading the men’s program, while Harris, also a longtime assistant, got the women’s job.
Carter’s contract was later renewed in July 2021, valid until June 30, 2024, and included the requirement that he receive executive coaching.
ETSU saw their fortunes on the pitch turn very positive as the football team achieved their most successful campaign since their re-establishment in 2015 and won their first playoff game since 1996.
The basketball teams each endured struggles on the court, with the women posting a 6-22 record and the men finishing their first season below .500 since 2012-13 with a 15-17 record.
But ETSU entered the summer set to put the past behind them and complete those payments to Shay and Ezell, in hopes that their new coaches would help fans, if not forget, at least not focus. on their teams’ recent off-field issues.
Then came August 1 and two ETSU communications press releases in quick succession.
The first: confusing news that Carter was resigning effective immediately. Shortly after, ETSU would fire Harris for cause in two weeks.
Carter’s letter and a press conference later in the day provided small details outside of the pressures of college athletics in the current climate of change and pressure around transfer gates, name, image and resemblance and COVID. College gave the standard nod to a desire to spend more time with family.
Things got more complex in an hour when the university announced that Harris would be fired within two weeks. The letter referenced an internal investigation that revealed significant wrongdoing during his coaching year.
The ETSU even released Noland’s letter to Harris castigating him for a litany of infractions, several of which he described using the exact language of Harris’ contract that warranted termination for cause. Noland wrote that this was ETSU’s plan, but just before the dismissal took effect on August 15, Harris submitted a voluntary resignation.
Separation agreements go beyond money
News Channel 11 has secured separation agreements for Carter and Harris. Although neither of their contracts mentions that the men would be paid if they quit, both agreements pay them.
In addition to raising ETSU’s tab to pay former top athletic employees nearly $750,000 this year, they include language missing from Shay’s two-page separation agreement.
Carter’s five-page agreement includes the AD’s consent to “forever release, acquit and discharge” ETSU from any legal action it may take. It also includes a clause allowing ETSU to recover a portion of the compensation if Carter is found to have violated any laws or policies while AD and ETSU suffer financial loss as a result.
Harris’ six-page termination agreement also opens him up to a potential recoupment, but it muzzles the ETSU from any further comment on his actions outlined in the investigation.
In a section titled “Neutral Reference and Non-Disparagement,” ETSU pledges to provide him with neutral references when he seeks another job.
The section further states that ETSU will not “do, encourage or induce ‘Noland or any other ETSU official’ to make negative, derogatory or adverse oral or written statements or representations against of Coach Harris”.
This prohibition explicitly includes “but is not limited to comments or statements to the press and/or media…that would in any way damage the reputation of Coach Harris”.
The section notes that ETSU and its officials can always make “truthful statements” when required by applicable law, regulation, legal process, or government oversight. In other words, the ETSU can answer questions from attorneys and investigators about Harris’ tenure if they arise.