Coaches Colleges Contract Negotiation Sports Agents Sports Law

University of Cincinnati Hires Wes Miller As Next Head Basketball Coach, Big Business Of College Athletics On Full Display

After a tumultuous ending to the tenure of University of Cincinnati head basketball coach John Brannen, Cincinnati has reportedly hired Wes Miller, formerly of UNC Greensboro, as its next head coach. Miller, 38, is coming off his second NCAA Tournament appearance in three seasons with the Spartans and accumulated a .578 winning percentage (185-135) in 10 seasons. 

When two parties enter into an agreement, and one of the parties does not hold up their end of the agreement, that is considered a breach of contract and the injured party is entitled to damages. That verbiage is not usually tossed around in the college athletics sector when it comes to contracts, at least among casual fans, but instead the term buyout is inserted as a replacement.

As such, Miller breached his employment contract with UNC Greensboro, and the school is entitled to liquidated damages as defined in the employment contract.  Miller signed a seven-year extension with UNC Greensboro in March 2018, which extended the length of the contract to June 2029. When Miller signed that extension, his salary increased from $233,450 to $301,150. The latter figure is noteworthy because that is the amount of liquidated damages that UNC Greensboro is entitled to, according to Section 8 of the employment contract between Miller and UNC Greensboro. Payment is due no later than the date that Miller starts in his capacity as the Cincinnati head basketball coach. 

While $301,150 may appear to be a rather significant amount of money for a small school like UNC Greensboro, who had $18,211,044 in total athletic expenses and $18,193,727 in total athletic revenues in 2019, according to the College Athletics Financial Information Database, I’m surprised it was not higher, especially considering Miller’s lengthy extension in 2018. If nothing else, consider this: Brannen owed Northern Kentucky $500,000 in liquidated damages when he took the same position with the Bearcats in 2019. Credit to Miller’s agent, though, for the negotiation victory. 

Cincinnati agreed to pay the liquidated damages that Brannen owed to Northern Kentucky. Will Miller’s agent score another negotiation victory and force Cincinnati to pick up the $301,150 tab? 

It is also important to note how expensive it can potentially be for a school to fire a sitting head coach and hire a new one. While Cincinnati officially fired Brannen for cause — meaning that the school is not contractually obligated to pay any liquidated damages to Brannen — recent comments made by Brannen’s attorney, Tom Mars, indicate that litigation is likely to follow to settle the contract dispute. Mars has argued that the school did not have justifiable grounds to fire Brannen for cause and, instead, Brannen is owed roughly $5 million, the amount of liquidated damages owed to Brannen for a without-cause firing. 

Purely hypothetical, but let’s say that Brannen and the school settle at $4 million, and Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham also agrees to pay Miller’s $301,150 buyout. That’s over $4.3 million, without even accounting for Miller’s total pay for the first year. One would think it would at least be in the same neighborhood of Brannen’s total pay of $1.5 million in 2019. (It would have been that same figure in 2020, but it was reduced to $1.456 million due to budgetary restrictions brought forth by COVID-19.) 

Throw in assistant coaches salaries and potential moving expenses for Miller, which are customarily included in a coach’s contract, and the total cost starts to gradually add up. 

In sum, hiring Miller may cost Cincinnati well over $5 million. The big business of college athletics — once again on full display.