JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — East Tennessee State University’s (ETSU) athletics program faces a hefty bill this fiscal year for coaches and staff who no longer serve the university.
News Channel 11 investigated the athletics budget to see how much the coaching line item typically costs and how much it’s cost in the last couple of years as the university has seen three resignations and one firing — all with payments to the departing employees counting for at least one year’s salary.
The most recent of those was ETSU’s decision to pay former women’s basketball coach Simon Harris $150,000 following his Aug. 15 resignation. Harris was the subject of an internal investigation, and ETSU President Brian Noland had written Aug. 1 that Harris was to be fired for cause.
Harris’s contract shows that in the case of either resignation or firing for cause, he would not be due any money, and Noland pulled no punches about what he labeled Harris’s “unconscionable” actions in his Aug. 1 termination letter.
‘Your conduct … is bringing and will likely continue to bring the University into considerable public disrepute, embarrassment, contempt, scandal, and/or ridicule.’ETSU President Brian Noland, letter to Women’s Basketball Coach Simon Harris, Aug. 1, 2022
Barely two weeks later, Harris had his severance package with not just money but a clause prohibiting ETSU from making any “negative, disparaging or adverse statements” about him. The severance agreement, and the near total silence by ETSU since, came despite an investigation finding he’d violated Title IX by dismissing two players in November 2021 for an unproven sexual relationship, then allegedly protected another player who allegedly physically assaulted a minor in a fight in mid-December.
‘The university will not make … any oral or written negative, disparaging, or adverse statements or representations of or concerning Coach Harris.’Simon Harris Severance Agreement and Release, Aug. 17, 2022
The Harris payment decision came just days after the university agreed to pay Scott Carter, who resigned Aug. 1 — the same day ETSU announced it would fire Harris — one year’s salary. That payment totals more than $213,000, and the university also agreed to maintain its obligation to provide last-dollar scholarships to any of Carter’s children who choose to attend ETSU.
Those recent commitments come on top of payments currently being made to former men’s basketball coach Jason Shay and fired women’s basketball coach Brittany Ezell, Harris’s predecessor.
All told, ETSU is paying about three-quarters of a million dollars over the next year to those four. The only one being paid according to the terms of their contract is Ezell.
Most collegiate coaching contracts include clauses protecting the coach if he or she is fired without cause. Posting losing records, as Ezell did in the several years leading up to her termination, was not among the factors that allow termination for cause.
ETSU had very little to say about its decisions to pay Carter and Harris despite their voluntary resignations. ETSU President Brian Noland and interim athletic director Richard Sander both declined requests to go on camera to discuss the decision to pay Harris in particular:
‘Based on the advice of legal counsel, ETSU acted to minimize disruption to our student-athletes and to allow university leaders to focus their full attention on providing our athletics community with the support they need to move forward.’ETSU Communications Director Jessica Vodden, Sept. 13
Where it all began
ETSU’s current run of paying people not to work began with Ezell’s March 8, 2021 firing in the wake of a third straight losing season for the Lady Bucs. Ezell’s teams had gone a combined 23-58 in the three years since she’d signed a five-year deal in April 2018 after a 20-13 season.
By then, ETSU’s men’s basketball team – led by then-coach Jason Shay – had become the focus of a controversy that gained national attention after a photo by News Channel 11’s Jesse Krull showed the team kneeling before the national anthem at a Feb. 15 game in Chattanooga.
By the time the first-year coach had led the Bucs to a 13-12 overall record, including a quarterfinal win in the conference tournament, the kneeling incident — and more particularly its aftermath — had gained national notoriety.
The players’ actions and Shay’s unabashed support for them had drawn intense criticism from some ETSU trustees, state legislators, community members and athletic boosters. Some community members rallied in support of what they deemed the players’ constitutional right to express themselves.
In the aftermath, Shay resigned, announcing the news on March 30.
While Shay’s contract included language that required him to pay ETSU $300,000 if he resigned before its April 2023 end date, his separation agreement shows him getting paid $450,000, two years’ salary, through the end of that contract period. The pay was guaranteed even if Shay got another coaching job, which he promptly did at Wake Forest under his ETSU predecessor, Steve Forbes — giving him essentially two paychecks for the majority of that two-year term.
ETSU announced two quick hires in succession. Desmond Oliver gained his first head coaching gig, running the men’s program, while Harris, also a longtime assistant, got the women’s post.
Carter’s contract was then renewed in July 2021, good through June 30, 2024, and included requirements that he receive executive coaching.
ETSU saw its fortunes on the field turn very positive as the football team turned in its winningest campaign since being reconstituted in 2015 and won its first playoff game since 1996.
The basketball teams each endured on-court struggles, with the women posting a 6-22 mark and the men finishing their first sub-.500 season since 2012-13 with a 15-17 record.
But ETSU entered the summer set to put the past behind it and complete those payments to Shay and Ezell, with hopes its new coaches would help fans, if not forget, at least not focus on their teams’ recent off-court issues.
Then came Aug. 1 and two news releases from ETSU communications in quick succession.
Carter’s letter, and a news conference later that day, offered up little details aside from the pressures of college athletics in the current climate of change and pressure around transfer portals, name, image and likeness and COVID. The university gave the standard nod to the desire to spend more time with family.
Things got more complex within an hour when the university dropped its announcement that Harris would be terminated within two weeks. The letter referenced an internal investigation that had found significant wrongdoing in his one year of coaching.
ETSU even released Noland’s letter to Harris castigating him for a litany of offenses, several of which he outlined using exact language from Harris’s contract that justified a firing for cause. Noland wrote that was ETSU’s plan, but just before the termination was to take effect on Aug. 15, Harris submitted a voluntary resignation.
Separation agreements about more than money
News Channel 11 got the separation agreements for both Carter and Harris. While neither of their contracts had any language about the men being paid if they resigned, both agreements pay them.
In addition to bringing ETSU’s tab for paying ex-high-level athletic employees to nearly $750,000 this year, they include some language that’s absent in Shay’s two-page separation agreement.
Carter’s five-page agreement includes the AD’s consent to “release, acquit and forever discharge” ETSU from any legal action he might initiate. It also includes a clause allowing ETSU to recoup some of the severance if it’s discovered Carter violated any laws or policies while AD and ETSU suffers financial losses as a result.
Harris’s six-page severance agreement also opens him to a potential clawback, but it muzzles ETSU from any further comments about his actions laid out in the investigation.
Under a section titled “Neutral Reference and Non-Disparagement,” ETSU agrees to provide neutral references for him when he seeks other employment.
The section further says ETSU won’t “make or encourage or induce” Noland or any other ETSU officials “to make any oral or written negative, disparaging, or adverse statements or representations of or concerning Coach Harris.”
That prohibition explicitly includes “without limitation, comments or statements to the press and/or media … which would adversely affect in any manner Coach Harris’s reputation.”
The section does note that ETSU and its officials can still make “truthful statements” when those are required by applicable law, regulations, legal processes or government oversight. In other words, ETSU can answer lawyers’ and investigators’ questions about Harris’s tenure should those arise.