UK hopes to pay less than the $6 million in memorandum

ralessi@herald-leader.comMarch 28, 2009 

University of Kentucky officials are aiming to settle for less than the $6 million buyout provision in ousted basketball coach Billy Gillispie's "memorandum of understanding."

For the last two years Gillispie has been earning $2.3 million annually and coaching under terms spelled out in the memorandum, because he never signed a contract.

UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. said for the first time Friday that the university considered Gillispie to be working under a "year-to-year contract" because the beginning of the memorandum states that a full seven-year contract will be negotiated "at the earliest possible date."

That never happened.

Another clause in the memorandum states that if Gillispie were fired, he would be owed $1.5 million for each year left on his contract, at a cap of four years. That would amount to $6 million.

But UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said the payout to Gillispie "will be less than that."

"We'll be in contact with Billy's counsel," Barnhart said. "We're working to put together a fair settlement and separation agreement. We want to do that and be fair about it. "

Gillispie's attorney, Stuart D. Campbell of Tulsa, Okla., did not return several telephone calls asking for comment.

Neither Barnhart nor Todd would answer the question of whether the university is prepared to go to court over the buyout, specifically the issue of whether the memorandum has the same force of law as a contract.

Attorneys who specialize in contract law have said that as long as the memorandum has names, dates and signatures, a court would probably consider it a contract.

And Barnhart has indicated in the past that he considered the memorandum a contract.

The memorandum "has all parameters that would basically define a contract anyway without all the legalese," Barnhart said in November 2007.

Campbell told the Herald-Leader at the same time that he and Gillispie didn't think Todd or Barnhart "would be unreasonable. But who's to say they're going to be there two years from now. It's a long-term contract and I have to look at it as such."

On Friday, Barnhart and Todd repeatedly noted that it was Gillispie who had declined to sign the contract.

The two sides never came together on a few clauses in the contract, including what it meant to be fired "for cause."

"When you clearly can't have any movement on a contract over a two-year period of time, its clear that's a challenge," Barnhart said Friday.

Charles S. Cassis, a member of the UK Athletic Association board of directors and an attorney, declined to speculate on what role the board might play in overseeing any payout.

"At this particular point, that's not an issue the athletic board has taken into consideration," Cassis said.

The possibility talked about around campus is that UK athletics boosters with deep pockets will come through to cover whatever the buyout costs.

But the idea of any big payout doesn't sit well with some students who have seen their tuition go up — 5 percent next year and this year — and watched professors get meager or no raises.

"It's ridiculous. Absurd," said James Hunsucker, a UK senior from Lexington. "It really just shows how important athletics is to this university."

Still, many students said they didn't have a problem with such a payout as long as it came from private donations.

"I'd be OK with that," said Ben Isaacs, a fifth-year senior in interior design from Orlando, Fla. "I wouldn't be OK if it came from educational funding."

Tyler Montell, UK's student body president, said such buyouts are unfortunate costs in a highly scrutinized part of the university.

"UK Athletics runs a business and you have to spend money to make money," he said.

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