Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo Drops Ball

Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo gets no sympathy in this corner.

DeFilippo is the type of person who believes a commitment is a commitment – at least, when he’s on the receiving end. But if he’s the one making the commitment, well, that’s a different story.

DeFilippo fired his football coach, Jeff Jagodzinski last week for interviewing with the New York Jets. There was nothing in his contract, which had three years remaining at an annual salary of $1 million, which prevented Jags from exploring coaching options with the Jets or anyone else. It’s also standard practice for successful coaches like Jags, who lead BC to a 20-8 record and successive bowl appearances in two years at the helm, to cast about for better opportunities, something DeFilippo, as AD at BC for the past 11 years, should have known better than anyone.
But DeFilippo maintains that Jags verbally assured him at the time he was hired that he would remain at BC for the length of his contract. Never mind that oral commitments at the time a contract is signed are rarely enforceable in a court of law. And never mind that BC isn’t exactly the most desirable coaching position in college football. DeFilippo was furious nonetheless.
To be fair, DeFilippo issued a public warning to his coach that he would be terminated if he interviewed with the Jets. But Jags was so determined to return to the NFL – where he had been an assistant coach for several teams prior to taking his first head coaching position with BC – he went ahead with the interview in spite of DeFilippo’s threat.
There’s no doubt Jags could have handled the situation better. DeFilippo first heard about the interview with the Jets from the media. When DeFilippo sought confirmation from Jags, the coach failed to return his call until after the interview took place. That’s no way to treat a superior, even if you don’t value your job. The fact that BC would still be on the hook for the $3 million remaining on his contract if he was fired may have influenced Jags’ course of action.
Jags’ repudiation of his verbal commitment to DeFilippo is unlikely to affect his ability to obtain another coaching position. In the coaching profession, contracts are meaningless and your word takes a back seat to your record. Win and you get to stay, unless a better offer comes along, in which case you leave. Lose and you get fired. If only the financial markets were that simple to understand.

In the real world, contracts set forth the obligations of the parties, and all parties expect those obligations to be fulfilled. In the event of a breach, parties often become litigants on opposite sides of a courtroom.
Coaching contracts, on the other hand, aren’t really contracts in the literal sense. They merely serve as a reference during the inevitable termination. Litigation between schools and coaches is rare – West Virginia vs. Rich Rodriquez is the exception - if for no other reason than a litigious coach may find himself with a paucity of offers and a litigious school with few applicants. So the “system” is self-regulating. A coach is free to leave with no impediments and a school can fire a coach, as long as they pay him the balance of his contract.
DeFilippo’s holier than thou stance with Jags rings hollow. Sure, he’ll get a few slaps on the back from his compatriots at the next AD convention. But those backslappers will be secretly pleased that DeFilippo has effectively prevented most of the better coaches in the country from ever applying at the Chestnut Hill school. Who wants to take a position where the AD expects you to stay the length of your contract?  

And then there’s the matter of DeFilippo’s word. On DeFilippo’s watch, BC abandoned its long term affiliation with the Big East Conference for the supposedly greener pastures of the Atlantic Coast Conference. During private negotiations with the ACC, while rumors circulated in the media, DeFilippo repeatedly denied any interest in moving to a new conference. When the move became public, DeFilippo was forced to retract his earlier denials. In short, he did what he accuses Jags of doing: Going back on his word.

At least Jags never lied about his interest in the Jets

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at jkobritz@mindspring.com.

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