Big names open trial in suit against Tubby Smith

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2010 - 11:00 PM

Ex-U assistant Jimmy Williams claims that Smith misled him about a job offer.

With University of Minnesota men's basketball Coach Orlando (Tubby) Smith sitting at the defense table Friday, two of the biggest names in state basketball and a longtime congressman testified for the former assistant who sued the coach for fraud.

Former Gophers star and NBA Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, former Gophers coach Jim Dutcher and former U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad testified as character witnesses for Jimmy Williams on the first day of the trial of his lawsuit against Smith in Hennepin County District Court.

Williams claims that he was the victim of fraud and negligent representation when on the strength of an offer to be Smith's assistant, he quit his job at Oklahoma State in 2007, only to be left high and dry. The suit says Athletic Director Joel Maturi unfairly vetoed his hiring because of decades-old NCAA violations.

Smith sat silently at the defense table with Maturi. Smith briefly exhibited his "the-game-is-going-south" expression, but mostly appeared relaxed. He smiled easily as he greeted courthouse staff when he entered and left the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis.

The suit seeks unspecified damages in excess of $50,000. Defendants initially included the university and Maturi, but the claim against them was dismissed.

The trio of big-name witnesses spoke highly of Williams. Dutcher, who kept Williams on as one of his two assistants for his tenure from 1975 to 1986, testified that Williams called him on April 3, 2007, and said he was returning to Minnesota to coach under Smith, who had just been hired from the University of Kentucky. Dutcher called Williams one of the best recruiters in the country.

McHale said he was a 17-year-old recruit from Hibbing when he met Williams, who taught him to always do the right thing and be honest. Ramstad said Williams has been like a brother to him for three decades.

Judge Regina Chu told the jury that the issue is whether Smith negligently represented that he had sole authority to hire Williams. What's not at issue, the judge said, is whether the university was justified in not hiring Williams because of 20-year-old rules violations.

Williams said Smith called and offered the Minnesota job at $200,000 a year. Williams submitted his resignation the next morning.

According to Williams' attorney, Donald Chance Mark Jr., Smith called Williams and said, "Jimmy, are you ready to come to Minnesota? I have the money."

Williams responded, "Yes, I am," according to Mark.

"This case is about misrepresentation and fraud ... " Mark said in his opening statement.

University associate general counsel Brian Slovut said Smith was returning from a visit to Maryland to see his ailing father and doesn't remember exactly what was said during the 14-minute conversation, but Smith did tell Williams that Maturi had to approve the hiring, Slovut said. Williams failed to take personal responsibility for his employment status, Slovut said.

By the next morning, a background check on Williams raised flags about the NCAA issues, and the hiring process stalled. Dutcher said Williams called because he had not heard from Smith. Dutcher said he then called at Williams' request.

"Tubby just said, 'I don't want to get off on the wrong foot with my athletic director, and I'm going to bring in my son [Saul Smith],'" Dutcher said, adding that he then dropped the topic. Smith's son is one of his three assistants.

During cross-examination, Slovut pressed Dutcher on whether he could have hired an assistant without then-Athletic Director Paul Giel's permission. Dutcher said, "We would have had a serious discussion." He said hiring assistants was never an issue during his tenure, but he conceded that Giel most likely wouldn't have let him hire his predecessor, Bill Musselman, who left after a flurry of NCAA allegations.

The lightest moment came during an exchange between attorney Mark and Dutcher, a retired financial executive.

"You had some success at the university," Mark said.

"That depends who you ask," Dutcher answered.

Mark said, "Your team won the school's last Big Ten championship, in 1982."

Dutcher replied, "The last one that counted," a reference to the 1996-97 title, forfeited because of NCAA violations under then-coach Clem Haskins.

The trial resumes Monday. Former Oklahoma State coaches Sean and Eddie Sutton are expected to testify next week, as are Smith, Maturi and Williams.

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747

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