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Cincinnati Warned, Fired Coach Over Practice Safety

Paul Steinbach

Documents obtained Monday by The Enquirer of Cincinnati show that the University of Cincinnati reprimanded head men's basketball coach John Brennen months before firing him April 9, accusing Brennen of using methods of intimidation against players, jeopardizing or disregarding their wellbeing and making payment of special benefits for an unnamed player.

"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 wellbeing, health and safety of student-athletes, despite written reprimand," Cunningham wrote in his termination letter to Brannen, a document obtained among others 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."

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 Oct. 6 that included an "unauthorized conditioning workout in violation of University rules and policies and [Brannen's] employment agreement." Cunningham further said the conditioning workout was not pre-approved by the university's training staff and was directed, in part, by Brannen, The Enquirer reported. According to Cunningham, 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."

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.

Cunningham acknowledged that the players received adequate water breaks, each student-athlete was wearing a heart monitor throughout the duration of practice, and the UC athletic training staff was present. However, it was athletic training staff who stepped in and ended the practice out of "concerns for the safety and welfare of the student-athletes."

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. 

"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.

Brannen led the Bearcats to a 32-21 record in his two seasons at Cincinnati. His 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."

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