Gillispie refused better deal, UK says

Response to suit asks that case be dismissed or moved to Ky.

ralessi@herald-leader.comJune 30, 2009 

The University of Kentucky offered to pay former basketball coach Billy Gillispie more money and give him two cars in a proposed contract that he never signed, according to the university's response to a lawsuit filed by Gillispie.

UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. revealed new details of the university's contract dispute with Gillispie in a filing Friday that seeks dismissal of the suit Gillispie filed in Texas over his firing in March.

If the lawsuit alleging breach of contract by the UK Athletics Association isn't dismissed, UK argues, it should at least be moved to Kentucky.

Gillispie's lawsuit — filed last month in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas — alleged that UK's athletics department owes him $6 million for firing him two years into a seven-year agreement.

At the center of the dispute between Gillispie and UK is the validity of a memorandum of understanding that laid out basic terms of the coach's employment but was far less detailed than a traditional contract. The two sides clashed over several provisions of a proposed contract, including language about reasons that UK could fire Gillispie "with cause."

In court documents, Todd said that on June 19, 2008, he and UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart met with Gillispie for two hours and reviewed "line by line" the latest contract offer, which by then "included a second car and increases in several monetary provisions above the figures" in the original memorandum of understanding.

"Billy Gillispie left both of us with the impression that he was in agreement with the university's proposed contract as we discussed," Todd said in the filing.

UK sent a revised contract to Gillispie on July 17, 2008, and the same contract to Stuart Campbell, Gillispie's attorney at the time, on Jan. 8, 2009.

"I was surprised to learn" in mid-February that Campbell had again rejected the proposed contract, once again striking out the grounds for cause to terminate, Todd said.

Gillispie's attorney in Houston, Demetrios Anaipakos, said Monday that he wasn't "particularly impressed" by UK's response to the lawsuit. "We will respond on the time frame set by the court," he said.

As for Gillispie's future, Anaipakos said "there's quite a bit of demand for his services; he's evaluating opportunities as they come his way."

Anaipakos has argued that the memorandum of understanding has the same legal weight as a contract and that the university referred to that two-page memo as a contract several times when responding to questions or issues about Gillispie's employment.

UK officials have said since Gillispie's firing that the memo of understanding was a temporary agreement that essentially allowed Gillispie to coach on a year-to-year basis. Gillispie shouldn't be paid the buyout because the two sides never agreed on the terms of a formal contract, they have said.

The university also filed a countersuit in Franklin District Court in Kentucky last month claiming that Gillispie had sued the wrong entity in the wrong venue.

In their response to Gillispie's Texas lawsuit, university attorneys said the coach is trying "to bring these convoluted claims against UKAA to avoid the fact that the university is a state agency of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and, due to sovereign immunity, cannot be sued in Texas."

"Alternatively, the lawsuit should be transferred to Kentucky — where the overwhelming majority of the witnesses reside and where the alleged acts for the basis of this suit occurred," wrote UK attorneys Stephen L. Barker of the Lexington firm Sturgill, Turner, Barker & Maloney and Michael P. Royal, a lawyer in Dallas.

Gillispie's suit said Texas is the appropriate venue because that's where Gillispie was when Barnhart offered him the men's basketball head coaching job in April 2007. The suit also contends that Gillispie and Barnhart negotiated basic terms of the hiring agreement over the phone before Gillispie first flew to Lexington to be announced as the new coach on April 6, 2007.

UK, however, argues that Texas had very little to do with the hiring process.

The first interview between Barnhart and Gillispie was arranged by a search firm and was in Atlanta during the 2007 NCAA Final Four championship, according to the filing.

"The only other third party that had contact with Texas was an airplane pilot" who picked Gillispie up to take him to Lexington, the brief notes.

UK's attorneys acknowledge that the contract question remains an important controversy that must be resolved — just not in Texas.

"The state of Kentucky has a strong interest in these issues, particularly where public funds may be at stake," UK's attorneys wrote.

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