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Published: Friday, 7/27/2007

Trustees to allow O'Brien to keep post

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

An advisory committee created by University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs will recommend that Athletic Director Mike O Brien s contract be extended or renewed, according to a university trustee and committee member.

UT trustee Alfred Baker said yesterday the five-member committee will be united in its support of Mr. O Brien when it makes its final recommendation to Dr. Jacobs, which is due on Wednesday.

The recommendation is being made despite questions raised about Mr. O Brien s conduct and his department s financial practices from inside and outside the university.

Another committee member and UT trustee, Richard McQuade, Jr., said he will recommend Mr. O Brien be retained, though he didn t know what the committee s final recommendation would be.

My personal opinion is very high of Mr. O Brien, and none of what s been revealed amounts to any reason not to retain him, Mr. McQuade said.

Dr. Jacobs told The Blade on June 13 that he intended to keep Mr. O Brien past his current contract s expiration on June 30, 2008, but was going to create a committee to advise him on the matter.

The other three members of Dr. Jacobs s committee Bill Logie, UT s vice president for administration; Peter Papadimos, interim vice president and general counsel for the university, and Kaye Patten Wallace, vice president for university affairs did not return phone calls seeking comment. Dr. Jacobs also declined to comment.

Dr. Jacobs announced formation of the committee the same day he ordered sweeping changes within the athletic department, including the removal of the department s financial controls from Mr. O Brien.

Mr. O Brien s department has since been investigated by UT officials and The Blade for questionable spending practices, potential abuses of barter agreements, and trips for coaches and their wives, while the department was facing a projected $2 million deficit.

Mr. O Brien came under scrutiny for the firing of a high-ranking UT athletic official who has since been rehired, and his department is the subject of an FBI investigation into an alleged point-shaving scandal with the football and men s basketball teams.

But Mr. Baker said Mr. O Brien s tenure at UT, which began in 2002, has included more successes than failures, including the erasing of an inherited financial debt within the department, a lucrative football game contract with Ohio State, and the athlete s academic progress.

You have to look at his performance in its totality, said Mr. Baker, a former chairman for the board of trustees at the former Medical University of Ohio. Some of the things that have gone on were beyond his control. And when you look at some of the positive things that have gone on [during Mr. O Brien s tenure], you really have to give him credit.

Mr. Baker said the point-shaving scandal, in which UT football and basketball players may have accepted money and other gifts to affect the point margins of games, was out of Mr. O Brien s control.

He also said the committee was aware of the situation regarding Suzette Fronk, the assistant athletic director for business affairs who was fired May 15 and then called back to work earlier this month.

Ms. Fronk, who records show was resisted by Mr. O Brien and other department officials when she tried to keep athletic spending in check, was originally told she was fired because of the merger between UT and MUO.

But in an e-mail dated June 7 from Mr. O Brien to Blade Vice President and General Manager Joseph H. Zerbey IV, Mr. O Brien said he eliminated Ms. Fronk s position and that she was the ultimate disgruntled employee.

I had to eliminate her role as she was a tremendous blow to our morale; among other things, Mr. O Brien wrote to Mr. Zerbey.

Mr. O Brien later said in a statement that he mischaracterized the situation.

Ms. Fronk was given her old job back by order of Dr. Jacobs on July 12, though she now reports directly to UT s finance department instead of Mr. O Brien.

I was taken aback by that e-mail, but [Mr. O Brien] did come back and indicate he had misrepresented the situation, Mr. Baker said. Would I have [written the e-mail to Mr. Zerbey]? No, but again, he stepped back from it.

Mr. Baker said the committee interviewed UT coaches, athletic department staff, and other university officials about Mr. O Brien, and their comments ranged from positive to very, very positive.

In addition to the praise Mr. O Brien received from his colleagues, Mr. Baker also said the committee s decision was swayed by the athletic director s body of work, which includes:

• A contract to play football against Ohio State in Cleveland Browns Stadium in 2009 in which UT acts as the home team and stands to make more than $2.5 million off the game.

• A rapport with donors that has led to large successes in fund-raising. Mr. O Brien is credited with orchestrating a $5 million donation from UT graduate Chuck Sullivan and his wife for the Savage Hall renovation project.

• Steady improvements in the classroom for UT athletes, who posted a collective 3.020 grade-point average last spring the department s second-highest score since it started keeping track in 1993. The department s best collective GPA was 3.059, set in the spring of 2006.

• Mr. O Brien s handling of a budget deficit when he arrived at UT. He announced in September, 2005, that the department finished the 2004-05 year with a surplus of $862,908, the second year the department finished with a surplus, and its debt had been trimmed to about $2.9 million from $4.6 million in 2003.

Mr. O Brien, who didn t return a phone message seeking comment, is paid a base salary of $160,199.

Mr. Baker said he didn t know if the committee would recommend to extend Mr. O Brien s current contract, or to offer him a new deal altogether.

Contact Joe Vardon at: jvardon@theblade.com or 419-410-5055.



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