Fired coach John Brannen sues the University of Cincinnati. Here's what's in the filing.
After being fired after just two seasons, former University of Cincinnati men's basketball coach John Brannen on Friday sued the university, its athletic director and its president.
Brannen, who was fired April 9, filed the federal lawsuit Friday against UC, UC Director of Athletics John Cunningham and UC President Neville G. Pinto, seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages and the more than $5 million buyout he says he's due. He also is asking for a jury trial.
The complaint claims "during the course of purportedly investigating, suspending, and terminating Coach Brannen 'for cause,' Defendants deprived him of his constitutionally protected procedural and substantive due process rights."
The 66-page suit says Brannen's suspension with pay, which began April 3, and his subsequent termination were the "result of a sham 'investigation' that was unfair, unreliable and inherently flawed and nothing more than a smokescreen to avoid triggering a contractual buyout clause that would have cost the University millions of dollars."
Scroll to the bottom of this story to read the full lawsuit
According to the lawsuit, Brannen learned that Tyler Stuart, the program's former strength coach, had "orchestrated a hushed smear campaign, fabricating and distorting" things Brannen may have said and done, and was "spreading malicious lies" about him. The complaint also charges Stuart was "emboldened" and "encouraged" by Cunningham to engage in such conduct and behavior "in his quest to find as much 'dirt' as he could" about Brannen.
Cunningham was unavailable for comment, but The Enquirer will update this story when Cunningham or the University of Cincinnati provides a statement.
The lawsuit claims "defendants not only intentionally failed and refused to provide Coach Brannen adequate notice of the allegations against him, but also denied Coach Brannen a meaningful opportunity to rebut those charges, formally respond to any allegations, and otherwise clear his name before the results of the incomplete 'investigation' were published and his employment was terminated 'for cause' via a letter purporting to summarize the findings of such 'investigation.'"
Cunningham's 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.
Two of the players, sophomore guards Mike Saunders Jr. and Mason Madsen, have since elected to return to Cincinnati to play for newly hired head coach Wes Miller. Cunningham officially hired Miller from UNC Greensboro on April 15.
Brannen's attorney, Tom Mars, has said he believes "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)."
Prior to Brannen's firing, 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.
According to the lawsuit, "Cunningham agreed to meet with DeJulius, but the meeting had a different tone than what DeJulius had expected."
The complaint says DeJulius indicated Cunningham was not interested in hearing about the relationship he had with Brannen or the respect he had for the former Cincinnati coach. Instead, according to the lawsuit, DeJulius said Cunningham only seemed interested in "finding out whether DeJulius would corroborate some of his teammates’ criticisms of Coach Brannen."
The lawsuit lists Madsen as one of those teammates.
The complaint also says multiple attempts by Brannen to reach out to Cunningham and Pinto via text message and phone call in order to "provide some clarity" prior to Brannen's termination. According to the lawsuit, many of Brannen's communications weren't returned.
Pinto released a statement in support of Cunningham following Cunningham's decision to terminate Brannen's employment.
"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."
After being fired, Brannen said he was "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 he "looked forward to the opportunity to bring the true facts to light."
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 lawsuit claims "Cunningham never informed Coach Brannen that he had decided to conduct an internal review of the men’s basketball program. Coach Brannen learned about it in the media."
According to the complaint, Cunningham had already decided to fire Brannen “for cause” by the time he announced the internal review of the men’s basketball program. The lawsuit says instead of Cunningham selecting a law firm to conduct the review that was truly independent, he enlisted the efforts of Bond, Schoeneck & King (BS&K), "a law firm that has served UC Athletics for at least the past 24 years."
The complaint alleges "Cunningham never intended the review of the basketball program to be independent or impartial or for BS&K to do anything but look for something that Director Cunningham could use as grounds to terminate Coach Brannen’s employment 'for cause.' "
In Cunningham's April 9 termination letter to Brannen, which was obtained May 3 by The Enquirer under Ohio's Open Records Act, Cunningham charged that 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.
UC reported to the NCAA on May 12 that Brannen, whom Cunningham suspended with pay April 3, committed a violation when he "arranged for outside counseling appointments" and paid for mental health care for an unnamed player, according to documents obtained by The Enquirer on Monday.
The violation occurred when Brannen 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 the documents.
Mars revealed the $135 payment on May 4.
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.
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.
UC hired Brannen in April 2019, eight months before Cunningham took over as Cincinnati's athletic director. Brannen spent the previous four seasons at Northern Kentucky University.
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.