When the University of Cincinnati fired former men’s basketball coach John Brannen, it accused the coach of using methods of intimidation against players and making payment of special benefits for an unnamed player. UC also accused Brannen of jeopardizing or disregarding the well-being, health and safety of his players, according to documents obtained Monday by The Enquirer.
The firing was preceded by a written reprimand months earlier.
UC Director of Athletics John Cunningham sent a letter to Brannen on April 9, the day Brannen was fired, that explicitly laid out the school’s justification for Brannen’s termination after only two seasons at the school.
“While the University’s investigation into your conduct is ongoing and therefore other grounds for termination may become evident, it is clear at this point, among other things, you have failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the Men’s Basketball Program with respect to rules, regulations and policies and have further jeopardized and/or disregarded the well-being, health and safety of student-athletes, despite written reprimand,” Cunningham wrote in the letter to Brannen. The letter was included in a group of documents obtained by The Enquirer under Ohio’s Open Records Act.
“Moreover, you have made, attempted, arranged or otherwise made payment for special benefits for a student-athlete other than through approved channels; intimidated and/or attempted to intimidate students from raising proper compliance concerns; as you have previously been notified, running one or more practices without proper precautions for player health and safety and repeatedly violated time management plan policies; and not been forthcoming with the University regarding your actions.”
Brannen’s attorney, Tom Mars, on Monday disputed Cunningham’s claims in the termination letter in a statement provided to The Enquirer.
“The decision to terminate Coach Brannen and the stated reasons given in the termination letter were all part of a pre-determined plan by John Cunningham to replace Coach Brannen without paying him the buyout compensation (more than $5 million) that Cincinnati owed him but couldn’t afford to pay,” Mars said. “We have a lot to say about the reprimand and termination letter, but we’ll let our court filings speak for themselves.”
Records show Cunningham sent Brannen a written reprimand on Nov. 9, 2020, about three weeks before the start of the 2020-21 season.
The reprimand was in response to a practice Brannen held on Oct. 6, 2020, that included an “unauthorized conditioning workout in violation of University rules and policies and (Brannen’s) employment agreement,” according to Cunningham.
Cunningham said the conditioning workout was not pre-approved by the university’s training staff and was directed, in part, by Brannen. Cunningham said the workout was “overly strenuous and led to several student-athletes not finishing a timed run and one student-athlete needing to be helped off the court.”
Cunningham said the practice did not end until a UC trainer stepped in and ended it out of “concerns for the safety and welfare of the student-athletes.”
One member of the team had to seek medical care following the practice, according to the documents. The names of the players were redacted in the documents obtained by The Enquirer.
Brannen took responsibility for conducting the unauthorized practice and checked on the student-athlete immediately after the practice and the following day and apologized, according to Cunningham.
After a two-hour practice, Brannen instructed the players to shoot free throws. If the team failed to make a certain number, Brannen instructed the players to run a series of timed runs. If the student-athletes did not make specified times for these runs, Brannen instructed the student-athletes to run again, according to the reprimand.
Though Cunningham felt the drill was “overly strenuous,” he acknowledged that the players received adequate water breaks and that each student-athlete was wearing a heart monitor throughout the duration of practice. Cunningham also recognized that the UC training staff was present and ensuring the safety of each student-athlete, and that Brannen advised each player to stop and sit out if a player was unable to complete a run, according to documents.
Cunningham said in the reprimand that Brannen’s actions during the workout violated the University’s Policy Conduct 15.02, specifically Section 3, which says, “violating University policies and encouraging or inciting others to do the same.”
Cunningham informed Brannen that he had violated Section 2(b) of his employment agreement when he failed to “comply with the University of Cincinnati Athletics Prevention of Non-Traumatic Catastrophic Injury and Sudden Death Policy (“Prevention Policy”) and disregarded clear instructions contained therein.”
“Based upon your representations to me in the candid meetings we had and based upon my independent review of the situation, I believe that you understand the severity of this activity and, more importantly, I believe that you will not repeat it,” Cunningham wrote in the reprimand. “As we have discussed on several occasions, the health and safety of our student-athletes is paramount. We must always show care care and concern for the student-athletes in our department.”
Following the reprimand, Brannen was required to “develop programs and procedures that seek to assure the welfare and promote the academic success of the student-athletes who participate in the men’s basketball program.”
The decision to terminate Brannen came two weeks after Cunningham announced the university was reviewing unspecified allegations related to Brannen and the men’s basketball program after six of Brannen’s players entered the transfer portal.
Cunningham announced on April 3 that Brannen had been placed on paid administrative leave pending the completion of the university’s review.
Cunningham officially hired former UNC Greensboro coach Wes Miller as the 28th head coach in program history on April 15.
Brannen led the Bearcats to a 20-10 record in 2019, a tie for the American Athletic Conference regular-season crown and the No. 1 seed in the AAC tournament. The postseason tournaments were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Brannen led Cincinnati to a 12-11 mark last season. The Bearcats lost 91-54 to Houston in the AAC tournament championship game and failed to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.