COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A judge ruled Wednesday that Ohio State improperly fired basketball coach Jim O'Brien in 2004 after university officials learned he had loaned money to a recruit.
O'Brien broke his contract by giving the $6,000 loan, but the error was not serious enough to warrant firing, Ohio Court of Claims Judge Joseph T. Clark said, finding in O'Brien's favor in the coach's lawsuit against the university.
"Because plaintiff's failure of performance was not material, defendant did not have cause for termination," the judge wrote.
O'Brien sued the university for $3.5 million in lost wages and benefits after he was fired in June 2004. With interest and other damages, he could receive nearly $9.5 million. Damages will be determined after another hearing.
The coach, who led Ohio State to the Final Four in 1999, had argued that the personal loan to Aleksandar Radojevic, a 7-foot-3 prospect from Serbia, was not a violation because he knew Radojevic already had forfeited his amateur status by playing professionally.
He said he gave the money to Radojevic's family in late 1998 or early 1999 because the player's father had recently died and the family needed money for a funeral.
Radojevic never played for the Buckeyes, and O'Brien said he didn't tell university officials because it was a moot point.
In his lawsuit, O'Brien contended he was fired before any investigation could even determine if he had broken NCAA rules. A provision of his contract said the NCAA had to rule on alleged violations before he could be fired for that reason.
Ohio State President Karen Holbrook testified that she didn't have to wait to hear from the NCAA how serious the violation was.
"The contract still requires him to uphold Ohio State's standards, which are the same as the NCAA's in part, but nonetheless, it is an Ohio State contract that was breached," she said.
But in his ruling, the judge disputed the university's claim that O'Brien acted in bad faith and tried to cover up his actions.
"The evidence does not support such a sinister view of plaintiff's misconduct," Clark said.
O'Brien, 55, coached the Buckeyes to a 133-88 record that included two Big Ten titles and a conference tournament title in seven seasons.
The NCAA is also investigating alleged violations committed during O'Brien's coaching tenure with the Buckeyes. It is expected to decide within the next few weeks on penalties for the program over the nine alleged violations, seven in the men's basketball program, one in football and one in women's basketball.
A university spokeswoman said a statement would be released later Wednesday.