CINCINNATI — The University of Cincinnati announced Friday afternoon its men's basketball program had fired head coach John Brannen, effective immediately. In a statement threatening legal action, Brannen's attorney says the coach's ouster was the result of a "hurried" and "incomplete" investigation meant to quickly remove him from the program and avoid a contract buyout.
Assistant coach Tim Morris will serve as interim head coach while a search is conducted, UC Athletic Director John Cunningham said in a statement.
"The decision to move in a new direction comes after a thorough review of our program, which included conversations with student-athletes, coaches and staff, as well as with Coach Brannen," his statement read. "Ultimately, the University is acting in the best interests of our student-athletes and of the institution, and this decision is reflective of our commitment to both, as well as to our values that we hold dear. As this is a personnel matter, we are unable to provide further details of the program review or the decision."
In a tweet Friday evening, Brannen described the last three weeks as "an emotional roller coaster for my family, our staff and our players."
"I am disappointed with this decision for a long list of reasons, but mostly because it was made long before the university even commenced its 'investigation' into the basketball program," Brannen wrote. "I look forward to the opportunity to bring the true facts to light."
Hours later, Brannen's attorney Tom Mars released a statement detailing what he says was an attempt by Cunningham to hire a "higher profile" coach while going back on a promise to buyout Brannen's contract, effectively "stiffing John Brannen to the tune of $5.25 million."
"UC’s decision to terminate John Brannen’s Employment Agreement was based on an 'investigation' that was incomplete and entirely pretextual," the statement read in part.
During a late night interview with team officials and Brannen's attorneys Thursday, Mars said a UC investigator revealed the team had just started working on a rough draft of their report. Still, a termination for cause notice came to Brannen 16 hours later, a notice Mars alleges also included "more than one reference to UC’s investigation being ongoing or not yet complete."
Brannen "refused to be intimidated" by Cunningham and at one point turned down a seven-figure settlement offer, Mars said. He also alleged that Cunningham "has refused to talk to" Brannen since before the conference tournament on March 14 "and then tried to call him for the first time in months mere minutes before sending his agent the notice of termination."
Mars said Brannen’s lawyers "will take the appropriate steps through the judicial process to protect and enforce his legal rights and remedies." He will work closely with sports contract attorney Bennett Speyer of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, and Erik Solverud, an "experienced trial lawyer" with Spencer Fane, LLP.
When reached for comment on Mars' statement, UC Athletics directed WCPO back to the original announcement of Brannen's termination.
Previously, UC announced that independent fact finders would conduct an investigation into unspecified allegations about the basketball program.
"The University has always put the welfare of its student-athletes first," Cunningham wrote in a statement March 26. "We feel this is an essential step to ensure that all of our athletic programs meet the highest standards."
In Brannen's first year with the Bearcats, the team went 13-5 in the American Athletic Conference and earned a top seed in the conference championship, but the rest of the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In four seasons with Northern Kentucky University, Brannen led the Norse to two NCAA Tournament appearances, two Horizon League regular-season titles and two conference championships. He has also served as an assistant coach at Alabama and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Since Cincinnati’s last season ended March 14 with an AAC championship loss, six UC players have indicated their intent to transfer.