Update: John Brannen's attorney responds to University of Cincinnati reporting of NCAA violation
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from Tom Mars, attorney for former Cincinnati Bearcats coach John Brannen.
The University of Cincinnati reported to the NCAA on May 12 that former men's basketball coach John Brannen committed a violation when he "arranged for outside counseling appointments" and paid $135 for mental health care for an unnamed player.
The violation occurred when Brannen, who was fired on April 9, used his personal credit card to pay $135 (the previous balance due of $105, plus a $30 co-pay) for a Nov. 19, 2020, appointment, according to documents obtained by The Enquirer on Monday.
Brannen's attorney, Tom Mars, revealed the $135 payment on May 4.
However, documents show when UC Director of Athletics John Cunningham initially questioned Brannen on or near March 8 about the Nov. 19, 2020, payment arrangement, Brannen told Cunningham the "arrangement had been approved by compliance." According to the documents, Cunningham circled back with university compliance officials and was told Brannen "never asked or received permission to pay for an outside counseling service."
"It appears that John Cunningham says he 'initially questioned Brannen (about the $135 payment) on or near March 8' but waited three weeks to circle back to compliance – one week before he fired him? That’s convenient," Mars told The Enquirer Monday night. "After all, if the basis for firing a head coach 'for cause' can be a disputed statement the AD claims the coach made to him with no witnesses present, and the AD gets to decide whose recollection of that conversation is more believable, the AD is going to win that contest every time. Where else does a witness get to also play the role of prosecutor and jury? Perhaps Cunningham thought that would be a convenient shortcut in the absence of any cause to fire John Brannen, but that will never fly in a court of law.
"In any event, John Brannen never told Cunningham that compliance had signed off on the payment. However, he did say something to Cunningham about compliance having signed off on the protocol for referring a student-athlete to a health care professional outside the UC Athletics network. And that’s verifiably true based on internal UC emails."
Cunningham declined to comment on Mars' statement.
Cunningham discovered the violation on April 2, a week before firing Brannen, during the course of a review of the men's basketball program, according to the documents obtained by The Enquirer under Ohio's Open Records Act.
UC has provided scant details about the investigation, including who conducted it and what they were paid to perform it. "The University has no final investigation report regarding the termination of head men’s basketball coach John Brannen to provide at this time," UC officials told The Enquirer on Monday.
The American Athletic Conference, UC's home conference, is aware of the violation and "will take action at a later time," according to the violation filed by the university to the NCAA.
Brannen initially contacted Laura Hensley, a licensed professional clinical counselor at Viewpoint Psychological Services in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, on Oct. 1, 2020, to arrange an appointment for an unnamed player, according to the violation. Hensley, who has a master's degree from UC, specializes in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related issues. She also has expertise in treating anxiety, self-harming behaviors and depression, according to Viewpoint's website.
The player did not know the arrangement and payment was not through the approved institutional process, according to documents.
The violation lists Brannen and former UC Director of Basketball Operations Craig Heatherly as the "involved individuals."
Heatherly couldn't be reached Monday night for comment.
Heatherly came to UC before the start of the 2019-20 season as part of Brannen's staff. He previously worked four seasons at North Dakota as an assistant coach and operations director, according to a UC website.
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.
In Cunningham's April 9 termination letter to Brannen, which was obtained May 3 by The Enquirer, Cunningham claimed Brannen "made, attempted, arranged or otherwise made payment for special benefits for a student-athlete other than through approved channels" and accused Brannen, among other transgressions, of using methods of intimidation against players and jeopardizing or disregarding the well-being, health and safety of his players.
Brannen's firing was preceded by a written reprimand months earlier. The written reprimand, which was in response to an Oct. 6, 2020, practice that Cunningham deemed "overly strenuous," and termination letter were included in a group of documents previously obtained by The Enquirer under Ohio's Open Records Act.
The Bearcats went 32-21 in Brannen's two seasons. Cincinnati finished 12-11 last season and failed to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
Cunningham hired former UNC Greensboro coach Wes Miller as the 28th head coach in program history on April 15.