Ellis Johnson's contract: who dropped the ball?

Published: Dec. 10, 2012 at 11:36 PM CST
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HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Firing former head football coach Ellis Johnson cost the University of Southern Mississippi $2.1 million dollars; no small deal, considering the university was already facing a more than $1 million debt problem.

Many outside the program are wondering why the university agreed to such a lucrative contract, but university officials haven't given many answers. Documentation, however, shows those officials may have known more than they let on. The timeline below will help put things into perspective:

December 7, 2011: Former Head Football Coach Larry Fedora announced he was leaving Southern Miss to become head coach at the University of North Carolina.

December 8, 2011: Richard Giannini, the school's athletics director for the previous 12 years, announced his retirement, but would not give a reason. However, it was widely understood that University of Southern Mississippi President Martha Saunders wanted him out.

Following Fedora's departure, Southern Miss formed a head football coach search committee, headed by University Vice President Joe Paul. The committee's first choice was University of Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart. Johnson was their second choice.

December 19, 2011: Saunders sent Johnson a letter of intent, which is a non-binding agreement, or offer of employment, that will later be put into a formal contract which must be approved by the State College Board. The letter contains language from both sides stating they will work in good faith to have a formal contract signed within 90 days, and is carbon-copied to then-Interim Athletics Director Jeff Hammond, University Lawyer John Mark Weathers, and Rick Davis, Ellis Johnson's agent.

December 20, 2011: Saunders introduces Johnson as the head football coach at Southern Miss.

April 27, 2012: Saunders resigns as the university's president, siting personal reasons.

May 1, 2012: Dr. Aubrey Lucas is named the university's interim president, effective June 30.

June 6, 2012: Jeff Hammond is introduced as the university's athletics director, and is signed to a one-year contract.

Of note, Saunders still held the title of university president at that time, but was prohibited from making any appointments.

August 20, 2012: Ellis Johnson signs his contract, worth four years, and $2.8 million dollars. It stated a buyout would cost the university Johnson's full $700,000 a year, and was also signed by Interim President Lucas on behalf of the college board.

All of the legal documents mentioned above show that five main parties, Hammond, Saunders, Weathers, Lucas and the college board, should have known about the contract and had at least eight months to accept or reject it.

Some have tried to link Giannini's name to the contract negotiation process. While he did serve on the search committee, Giannini said on Monday that he had nothing to do with the contract, and never drew up a contract that did not have a negotiated buyout.

The coaching search appears to be coming to a close with Oklahoma State Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken's name being cited in several reports as the man to replace Johnson. Whether he is or not, the state board made one point very clear for the next negotiating process: "No more bad contracts."

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