COLUMBUS - A 47-year-old nanny who has sent shock waves through one of Ohio's most powerful institutions - the Ohio State University athletic department - said it all began fairly innocuously, with a simple telephone call.
On the other end of the line, Kathleen Salyers contends, was Dan Roslovic, a Columbus-area businessman whom she knew after working for him and his wife, Kim, as a housekeeper and nanny.
Mr. Roslovic was calling, according to Mrs. Salyers, to ask her to house and care for an Ohio State basketball recruit, Slobodan "Boban" Savovic.
That phone call set in motion a series of charges and countercharges, lawsuits and countersuits, that led to the downfall of OSU basketball coach Jim O'Brien.
How could this happen? How could a 47-year-old nanny, who knew next to nothing about basketball to begin with, bring about the downfall of a coach known at least as much for his integrity as for his basketball acumen?
Mr. O'Brien was caught in the backwash of a lawsuit filed by Mrs. Salyers against the Roslovics, whom she alleged reneged on a deal to pay her to care for Mr. Savovic. The O'Brien revelation that resulted in his dismissal- that he had given more than $6,000 to another OSU recruit - was a mere nugget in a voluminous deposition given by Mrs. Salyers in her $359,910 lawsuit.
But it was enough to cost Mr. O'Brien his job and his reputation and could lead to repercussions for Ohio State and at least one other coach as well.
Mr. Savovic had arrived in Columbus from Newark, N.J. He came to the United States from Yugoslavia in 1997 to play basketball at a Newark high school.
Paul Biancardi, an OSU assistant coach, recruited Mr. Savovic, who accepted a scholarship to play for the Buckeyes.
Mrs. Salyers said Mr. Roslovic told her he was calling from Mr. Biancardi's office.
Mr. Roslovic told Mrs. Salyers that "his company's relationship with OSU as an athletic booster" prevented him from allowing players to live with his family, Mrs. Salyers' attorney wrote.
"He said that he had given money to the Ohio State athletic department in the past, he and/or Kim. And therefore it was a violation for [Mr. Savovic] to stay with them. [Mr. Savovic] had to leave and asked if I would take him. He offered me a thousand dollars a month plus expenses," Mrs. Salyers said in her deposition.
Mrs. Salyers said she agreed, and Mr. Savovic, in July or August of 1998, moved into her house in the Columbus suburb of Gahanna.
Mrs. Salyers said Mr. Biancardi told her that if anyone asked why Mr. Savovic was living in her home, she should say Mr. Savovic had become friends with her son, Robert Huston, while playing basketball.
A few weeks after Mr. Savovic moved in, Mrs. Salyers said she began to give him money.
She said she gave him $200 a week from 1998 to 2000 and then $150 a week from 2000 to 2001, at the request of Ms. Roslovic, who was divorced from her husband in August, 2000.
"My understanding through Kim and my discussion was that she was going to give the money to me to give to Boban, so that way Boban wasn't taking the money directly and it wouldn't be a [NCAA] violation," Mrs. Salyers said in her deposition.
Mrs. Salyers said she often would leave the money in a medicine cabinet. "I'd say, 'Boban, go comb your hair.' And he'd go in the bathroom and get the money and come out and hug me," she said in her deposition.
Mrs. Salyers said Mr. Biancardi knew about the payments to Mr. Savovic, as did several players.
In a deposition, an attorney representing Mr. Roslovic asked Mrs. Salyers: "And when [Ms. Roslovic] made this first agreement with you for $200 a week, that was also - you thought was going to be for his basketball career at Ohio State?"
"His spending money, yes," replied Mrs. Salyers.
Mrs. Salyers' attorney, Jeff Lucas, said she had the money because she remortgaged her home and tapped "multiple sources."
In August, 2003, Mrs. Salyers sued Dan and Kim Roslovic, accusing them of reneging on a verbal agreement to pay her $1,000 a month plus expenses to take care of Mr. Savovic. She says she never received any money from the Roslovics.
Allegations in that lawsuit led to OSU's decision to fire Mr. O'Brien and have raised questions about Mr. Biancardi's future. In April, 2003, he became head coach of the men's basketball team at Wright State University near Dayton.
Mrs. Salyer's 801-page deposition has led to an NCAA probe that could end in sanctions, including probation for OSU's men basketball team, forfeiture of victories from 1998 to 2002, and a ban on postseason play.
Mr. Roslovic said he had no relationship with Mr. Biancardi in 1998 and 1999.
"He never spoke to nor met former assistant coach Paul Biancardi until the fall of 1998 - well after the events involving Boban Savovic's living arrangements - and he never made the phone call that Mrs. Salyers alleges was made at the end of July, 1998," wrote Mr. Roslovic's attorney, Kris Dawley.
OSU telephone records show that four calls were placed to Mrs. Salyers' residence from a cell phone labeled "basketball assistant" - one on July 26, 1998, and three on July 28, 1998.
Mr. Biancardi has declined requests for interviews. He denied any wrongdoing in a statement.
Mr. Roslovic said Mrs. Salyers offered to let Mr. Savovic stay at her house until September, 1998, when OSU would provide him housing and meals.
"No reasonable person would continue to rely on an oral promise without receiving a single payment over the course of four years," wrote Mr. Dawley, Mr. Roslovic's attorney.
Contacted Thursday, Mrs. Salyers said: "I have nothing to say," and hung up.
In her depositions, Mrs. Salyers revealed that Mr. O'Brien had given $6,700 or $6,800 to another recruit, 7-foot-3 center Aleksandar Radojevic, in 1998 or 1999. Mrs. Salyers said the cash was for the player's mother. His father had died in September, 1998.
According to OSU Athletic Director Andy Geiger, Mr. O'Brien admitted giving the money to Mr. Radojevic, saying he did so for humanitarian purposes.
C. James Zeszutek, Mr. O'Brien's attorney, said Mr. O'Brien gave the money through an intermediary so he could give it to Mr. Radojevic's mother. Mr. Zeszutek said Mr. O'Brien considered the payment a loan.
He said the money was given after Mr. Radojevic signed a letter of intent to play at OSU but that his mother may not have received it until after he was declared ineligible to play at OSU.
"How could it be a violation?" Mr. Zeszutek said.
The NCAA declared Mr. Radojevic ineligible because he had received money for playing overseas. He entered the NBA draft in 1999 and played for three teams before injuries ended his career.
Mr. Geiger said Mr. O'Brien acknowledged the payment to Mr. Radojevic was an NCAA violation, and OSU disclosed it to the NCAA on May 18. Mr. Geiger said Mr. O'Brien told him about the payment on April 24.
"Whether or not a student has signed a letter of intent is immaterial, they're still a prospective student-athlete, and that's Compliance 101," Mr. Geiger said.
Mrs. Salyers also said she saw a New York-based sports agent, Marc Cornstein, and his associate, Spomenko Pajovic, leave the OSU locker room several times when Mr. Savovic played for the Buckeyes from 1998 to 2002.
NCAA rules prohibit agents from contacting college athletes.
She said Mr. Pajovic asked her to give his phone number to Scoonie Penn, Michael Redd, and Ken Johnson - key players in lifting OSU to the NCAA Final Four in 1999. She said she gave it to someone in Mr. Penn's family and a woman who knew Mr. Johnson.
Mrs. Salyers also said in her deposition that Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Biancardi were aware that Mr. Savovic had run up about $10,000 on a calling card that belonged to Mr. Cornstein's father.
Mr. Cornstein didn't return messages seeking comment. He released a written statement saying he "acted appropriately at all times." Mr. Pajovic could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Cornstein is president of Pinnacle Management, and Mr. Pajovic is vice president. Their clients include Mr. Savovic - who most recently played in a French basketball league - and two other former OSU players, Cobe Ocokoljic, who transferred from OSU after two years, and Velimir Radinovic, who completed his eligibility last season.
Mrs. Salyers also said she and Ms. Roslovic wrote papers for Mr. Savovic, and Mrs. Salyers convinced two professors to change Mr. Savovic's grades so he could remain eligible to play.
Mrs. Salyers said she approached the faculty members to change the grades at the request of Mr. Biancardi, and he asked her to pay $21,000 in international taxes for Mr. Savovic.
Mr. Biancardi told her not to use a check because that would leave a paper trail, she said.
Mrs. Salyers said in her deposition that in late 1998, Ms. Roslovic told Mrs. Salyers that she and her husband were getting divorced. "She asked [Mrs. Salyers] to be patient regarding payment of her compensation for keeping [Mr. Savovic] while the divorce was pending," Mrs. Salyers' attorney wrote.
Mrs. Salyers said she had to remortgage her home twice - once at an interest rate of 18.9 percent - to pay for Mr. Savovic's expenses and eventually had to sell her home.
Attorneys representing the Roslovics have asked the Franklin County judge presiding over the lawsuit to dismiss it.
Mr. Roslovic also has filed a counterclaim for defamation of character against Mrs. Salyers, saying she has made "derogatory and false statements."
Attorneys for the Roslovics have said state law is clear that a verbal contract can't be enforced unless the work can be performed within one year. Mrs. Salyers said her verbal pact with the Roslovics was for four years - the span of Mr. Savovic's OSU basketball career, but it could have ended at any moment.
Mrs. Salyers' attorney, Mr. Lucas, said the big picture is an "amateur sports system that is broken."
"There's too much money flowing into it and too many people living off the players. And the players can't receive any benefit at all. When something happens, the coaches are the ones to blame, and I think the coaches are put in an impossible position," he said.
James Drew can be reached at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.
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