Both sides digging in deep following Brannen's dismissal as UC head coach

Keith Jenkins
Cincinnati Enquirer

The University of Cincinnati has parted ways with men's basketball coach John Brannen.

Cincinnati Director of Athletics John Cunningham announced Friday that Brannen has been "relieved of his duties."

"This afternoon, we informed Men’s Basketball Head Coach John Brannen that he has been relieved of his duties effective immediately," Cunningham wrote in a letter to Bearcats fans. "Tim Morris will serve as Interim Head Coach while we conduct a comprehensive nationwide search for a new leader of our men’s basketball program.

"The decision to move in a new direction comes after a thorough review of our program, which included conversations with student-athletes, coaches and staff, as well as with Coach Brannen. Ultimately, the University is acting in the best interests of our student-athletes and of the institution, and this decision is reflective of our commitment to both, as well as to our values that we hold dear. As this is a personnel matter, we are unable to provide further details of the program review or the decision. 

More:University of Cincinnati will 'review' allegations made against men's basketball program

"We will work quickly but judiciously in finding a new head coach. With a passionate fan base, strong tradition and history, elite facilities, and a collective commitment to success, we are confident that we will have a deep pool of candidates. We will continue to engage with and support our student-athletes during this transition.

"Thank you for your patience. We look forward to cheering on the Bearcats together in Fifth Third Arena next season."

Cunningham told The Enquirer that he will not hold a news conference until he hires a new coach.

A couple hours after Cunningham released his statement, Brannen released a statement of his own.

"I am disappointed with this decision for a long list of reasons, but mostly because it was made long before the university even commenced its 'investigation' into the basketball program," Brannen said. "I look forward to the opportunity to bring the true facts to light."

The decision to terminate Brannen came two weeks after Cunningham announced the university was reviewing unspecified allegations related to Brannen and the men's basketball program after six of Brannen's players entered the transfer portal.

Cunningham announced April 3 that Brannen had been placed on paid administrative leave pending the completion of the university's review.

More:University of Cincinnati suspends men's basketball coach John Brannen

More:John Brannen's attorney calls saga with UC an 'avoidable embarrassment to UC Athletics'

Brannen's attorney, Tom Mars, on Monday called the ongoing saga with Cunningham and the school's athletics department an "avoidable embarrassment to UC Athletics." On Friday night, Mars sent another statement to The Enquirer, saying the university's "decision to terminate John Brannen’s Employment Agreement was based on an 'investigation' that was incomplete and entirely pretextual."

"From our perspective, it appears that John Cunningham’s intentions in arranging the ouster of John Brannen were based on his desire to hire a 'higher profile' basketball coach by reneging on UC’s promise to pay an agreed upon buyout and stiffing John Brannen to the tune of $5.25 million (Brannen's buyout)," Mars said.

Mars claimed Brannen declined to accept a "seven-figure settlement" offer made by UC's outside counsel. Mars also claimed UC denied Brannen due process.

"UC carefully constructed its notice of termination in a futile effort to avoid making any allegation that would have guaranteed John Brannen a right to cure, a right to identify witnesses who should be interviewed, a hearing, and other due process rights," he said.

John Brannen is introduced as men's basketball head coach at the University of Cincinnati on Monday at Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati. Brannen formerly coached at Northern Kentucky University.

Cincinnati President Neville Pinto released a statement Friday in support of Cunningham.

"I want to commend John Cunningham for his sound leadership and principled stewardship of our department of athletics," he said. "His character and integrity speak louder than words. Our student athletes could not have a more caring and capable leader advocating on their behalf. John has my full confidence in moving our programs forward to even greater heights."

Brannen said Friday that the opportunity to be the men's basketball coach at Cincinnati was a "lifelong dream."

"I wish the student-athletes and the basketball staff at Cincinnati nothing but the best," he said. "Lisa (Brannen's wife) and I appreciate all the kind words and support we have received from the many coaches, staff and stakeholders of the university."

Seven players have left the UC program in the past four months. Rapolas Ivanauskas opted out in December and later joined a professional club in Lithuania, while six of Ivanauskas' former teammates entered the transfer portal in a three-day span following the Bearcats' loss to Houston on March 14 in the American Athletic Conference tournament championship game.

One of those players, freshman guard Gabe Madsen, has since committed to the University of Utah. Another, sophomore guard Zach Harvey, has committed to UC Santa Barbara. Both players opted out at some point during the 2020-21 season.

Freshman guard Mike Saunders Jr., the first player to whom Brannen offered a scholarship when he was hired in April 2019, also entered the portal. Saunders is reportedly expected to announce his future plans on April 15.

The most notable of the group is freshman forward Tari Eason. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound four-star recruit out of Seattle averaged 7.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals this season en route to earning a spot on the AAC All-Freshman team. Eason’s 1.3 blocks per game ranked fourth in the American.

Point guard David DeJulius, who transferred to Cincinnati last offseason after two years at Michigan, spoke out in support of Brannen in an interview with The Athletic. That came after unnamed players offered The Athletic their unattributed takes on the second-year Cincinnati coach.

The players suggested Brannen was apathetic to the challenges they faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that he dispensed playing time unwisely and that they had lost all trust in him.

More:'Longer it drags on, the more damage it does': How UC's Brannen review could impact program

UC sophomore guard Jeremiah Davenport, a Cincinnati native and former Moeller High School standout, tweeted after Gabe's twin brother, Mason Madsen, announced he was entering the portal, telling Bearcats fans to “Keep the faith ... we gone be alright! REGARDLESS!”

Cincinnati Bearcats head coach John Brannen and the team watch technical free throws in the second half of an NCAA men's college basketball game against the Temple Owls, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021, at Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats won, 71-69.

Brannen, who was hired eight months before Cunningham took over as Cincinnati's athletic director, went 32-21 in his two seasons at the helm of the Bearcats men's basketball program. Brannen spent the previous four seasons at North Kentucky University.

Under Brannen, Cincinnati started the 2020-21 season 3-7 before COVID-19 issues forced the team away from the court for 25 days. The Bearcats rallied to a 9-4 finish and reached the AAC tournament championship game. UC finished 12-11 and failed to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.

Mars claimed Cunningham has refused to talk to Brannen since before the conference tournament (March 11-14) and then "tried to call him for the first time in months mere minutes before sending his agent the notice of termination."

"John Brannen’s lawyers will take the appropriate steps through the judicial process to protect and enforce his legal rights and remedies," Mars said.

Brannen led the Bearcats to a 20-10 record in 2019, a tie for the AAC regular-season crown and the No. 1 seed in the AAC tournament. The postseason tournaments were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.