JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — East Tennessee State University (ETSU) will pay former women’s head basketball coach Simon Harris a $150,000 severance package despite the university’s earlier intentions to fire Harris for cause related to a Title IX investigation.

ETSU has provided News Channel 11 the separation agreement signed Aug. 16 by Harris and ETSU President Brian Noland and the following day by Mark Fulks, the university’s top lawyer. Harris resigned Aug. 15, which was the date Noland had said in an Aug. 1 letter Harris would be fired. Athletic Director Scott Carter resigned the same day.

The severance amount, which Harris will receive in either the August or September pay period, is equal to the base salary he earned during his one year coaching the Buccaneers, when the team posted a 6-22 record. It does include any vacation pay he was due.

News of Harris’s pending termination broke Aug. 1. News Channel 11 obtained a letter from Noland that day in which Noland notes in just the second paragraph the section in Harris’s contract about termination for cause.

Noland writes that an internal investigation following Title IX complaints by two players who said Harris unjustly dismissed them from the team produced a laundry list of violations that justified firing Harris for cause.

“Based upon these findings, the University has reason to believe that you are responsible for serious violations of University policies; behavior that brings you, the Department of Athletics, and the University into disrepute; and abusive treatment of the University’s student-athletes,” Noland’s letter says.

Harris’s contract leaves ETSU with no obligation to pay him anything if he is terminated for cause, and several of the listed reasons for terminating him for cause practically mirror items listed in Noland’s letter. Those include:

  • Behavior on the coaches part that brings the Coach, the team, the Athletics Department or University into disrepute.
  • Abusive treatment of student-athletes or staff…

Lisa Cloutier, a Title IX attorney who told News Channel 11 in an Aug. 12 interview that ETSU had done the right thing in deciding to fire Harris, said the payment of severance and allowing Harris to resign were a disappointment.

“There’s absolutely no need for the coach to be paid in this situation,” she said. “They have cause to fire him and it looks sort of unfortunately like an old boys network situation where they’re taking care of him.” 

She said the report’s reams of evidence made the payment “indefensible.”

“Unfortunately it’s a situation where the school is not doing the right thing and it’s completely a slap in the face to those two women who have gone through this and frankly to the other women on the team,” Cloutier said.

She said undue magnanimity toward Harris might not have been the university’s only consideration. She said a clause in the agreement requiring him to cooperate if ETSU gets sued caught her attention.  

“The school is basically trying to take care of itself here and pay him to go away nicely and make sure that he’ll cooperate with them in the future in the event they do face a lawsuit from these women, which quite frankly they should be concerned about given what they found in their own Title IX report.” 

The amount being paid in the severance package doesn’t match with the severance amounts spelled out in Harris’s contract if he were fired without cause before the contract’s end date of April 30, 2025. For such a firing (typically when a coach’s won-loss record isn’t satisfactory) after just one season, ETSU would have owed Harris $200,000.

The amount wouldn’t have dropped to $150,000 until after the 2022-23 season. A payout for termination without cause also would have been reduced if Harris had gotten another coaching or other college job, or even a high school coaching job, by the amount the new job paid him — and it would have been paid over time in amounts equal to his monthly salary.

A section in the separation agreement titled “Compliance” leaves the door open for ETSU to potentially terminate the agreement. It states that if Harris is learned to have “violated any law, rule, regulation or policy” during his brief tenure, and if ETSU suffers financial damages because of the violation, the university can terminate the agreement “or reduce the amount of payments due” to recover losses.

If such is the case it would have to be determined quickly in order to reduce payments or terminate payment, since the agreement provides for a lump sum this month or next.

The compliance section also states that Harris “represents that he has not made any misrepresentations during any University investigation during his employment.”

The university’s investigation, though, claimed that Harris did make such misrepresentations, including saying that he had a rule against alcohol use and then adding that after the fact into a PowerPoint he had reviewed with players in July 2021.

With new coach Brenda Mock Brown coming on board with salary due to start this month, ETSU women’s basketball now finds itself paying salaries (or in Harris’s case a lump sum) to three separate coaches. Harris’s March 2021 hiring came on the heels of ETSU firing Brittney Ezell under “termination without cause” following the 2020-21 season, which saw the Bucs go 4-16 to cap a three-year run of futility (23-58 overall).

Ezell’s separation agreement, as is standard for termination without cause, pays her $156,825 annual salary in monthly increments through June 30, 2023. That was the end date of a contract she signed in April 2018, following a 20-13 record that saw the team earn an appearance in the Women’s NIT tournament.

Counting Harris’s payout, that means the women’s basketball program will pay nearly half a million dollars during the 2023 fiscal year that includes the 2022-23 season.