the 6 million dollar man?

Gillispie buyout might ruffle feathers at UK, beyond

Understanding Gillispie's 'memorandum'

lblackford@herald-leader.comMarch 27, 2009 

First off, a contract is a contract even if it's written on a napkin, as long as it's got names, dates, a subject and signatures.

That's according to several lawyers who say that, despite the fact that University of Kentucky basketball coach Billy Gillispie has a "memorandum of understanding" and not a contract with UK, the agreement would probably hold up in court, along with the $6 million farewell package it promises if Gillispie is fired.

That slim, three-page document became the subject of a lot of speculation when Gillispie's season ended on Wednesday night with a 22-14 record — unthinkable for Kentucky — this year.

Michael McCann, a University of Vermont law professor who writes for Sports Illustrated, says if it looks like a contract, it will probably be treated as one in court.

Of course, this being Kentucky, McCann said, "It's an interesting point that some elected judges may view the law with a greater appreciation of public sentiment," that sentiment being that Gillespie doesn't deserve the payout. "It's possible, but I still think a judge would consider it by the precedent."

But the bigger question is whether University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. would be willing to face the public outrage over a cash-strapped university — that didn't give out a raise last year and might not give one next year — handing over a $6 million check. .

"I would advise both Gillispie and Todd to sit down and work out the best deal they can," said Patrick Moores, a contracts lawyer and UK fan who also believes the memorandum would be legally binding. "I'm sure they're both worn out with hearing from unhappy fans."

Sure, the rumor mill is already buzzing about wealthy donors willing to hand over big checks just to get rid of the current coach. And, of course, UK Athletics, which brings in millions of dollars a year for its athletic programs, probably has enough money in the piggy bank to both pay Gillispie and pony up for whatever the next coach demands.

UK Athletics officials did not return telephone calls requesting comment Thursday.

But Todd — who often insists that athletics is not separate from the rest of the university — runs the risk of ridicule the next time he goes to the General Assembly for money.

John Thelin, a UK professor and higher-education historian, described the sentiment: "If indeed an institution can afford this kind of discretionary payment, they must be okay."

"It doesn't strengthen the case for added state subsidies," he said.

UK recently voted to raise tuition by 5 percent in the face of more state cuts and faces another year without raises for faculty and staff. A $6 million payment, Thelin said, could be hard to take.

"I think it has some bad effect for staff and faculty overall."

UK officials talk about one university and the importance of academics, but that feeling might not always be shared by the fan base of the Big Blue Nation.

"For some strand of Kentucky citizens, it doesn't really matter if large parts of the educational program are struggling financially," Thelin said. "What's the problem when we have a new practice facility; we're going to get a new coach; those are all priorities, and we'll make sure we fulfill them."

If Gillispie is indeed fired, then the hope of some kind of settlement may be the best outcome.

"I think it would be fair to say there would be a good deal of unhappiness from people who had no raise last year and might not get one this year," said UK history professor Karen Petrone.

"I think you can underline the vast difference between the way faculty compensation is treated compared to sports coaches," she said. "We don't get paid $1.5 million a year any time."

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