Michael Lyons Discusses Dangers Schools Face for Pretextual Coaching Terminations

In reporting on the launch of an NCAA investigation into alleged infractions involving the Nebraska football program and head coach Scott Frost, The Athletic issued a stark warning to school administrators who attempt to use self-initiated investigations to manufacture for-cause terminations.

In the Aug. 19, 2021, article “Tread Lightly, Nebraska,” The Athletic’s David Ubben talked with Lyons & Simmons co-founder Michael Lyons about the choices now facing the school and the lessons to be learned from recent coaching decisions made by Kansas and Tennessee. Lyons successfully represented David Beaty in his contract fight with Kansas. He currently represents Jeremy Pruitt in a well-publicized dispute over his buy-out at Tennessee.

In those cases, the schools followed what Lyons called a trending “playbook” to terminate their coaches for-cause and attempt to avoid paying the liquidated damages provided in their contract.

“The playbook is, ‘Let’s get out of our contract with our coach,’” Lyons said. “‘We want to fire our coach because he hasn’t won enough games. But we don’t want to pay his buyout. So we’ll hire this law firm to come in and conduct a phony investigation. That investigation will be outcome-oriented to try and drum up whatever we can to try and implicate our head coach and hopefully trigger a trapdoor provision that amounts to a for-cause termination.

“And then we can get our cheese out of our trap with this coach that’s not winning enough games by firing him for cause based upon a self-inflicted investigation where we turn ourselves into the NCAA.’”

Although Nebraska has not yet shown an inclination to remove Frost, the pressure for change could mount depending on the team’s performance this season. If Frost was removed before Dec. 31, he would be due a $20 million buyout of his contract, unless he is justifiably terminated “for-cause”.

As Lyons has seen in his representation of Beaty and Pruitt, schools that look only at the financial ramifications are ignoring the “big picture”.

“I have had very successful agents who represent big-time college football coaches who have told me, ‘In the face of this kind of shenanigans, I will never steer my client to one of these universities,’” Lyons said.

“They may be saving, in their minds, the amount of the buyout. In David Beaty’s case, that didn’t work out for them. But what they’re buying is bad PR, the potential for serious violations that impugn the sport in question or other sports — bigger violations. And they’re putting themselves in line that when the next violation happens, they’ll look back and say, ‘Well, you violated the rules on this countable coach thing,’ or whatever jaywalking offense they want to turn themselves in for in order to avoid paying their coach. But if you get through the public perception, if you get through the, ‘Hey, we may be putting the program at risk,’ the worst thing of the entire deal in my opinion is what happens to your reputation in the coaching ranks.”

The full article “Tread Lightly, Nebraska“ is available here.

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