Tim Cohane’s 10-year fight to clear his name, or at least the chapter accusing the University at Buffalo of ruining his big-time college coaching career, may be coming to an end.
A federal judge is recommending dismissal of Cohane’s lawsuit against several former and current UB officials, the forum for his allegations that the university conspired with the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Mid American Conference to trump up charges against him.
Cohane was given plenty of opportunity to challenge his 1999 resignation from UB and the NCAA violations against him, U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder said in a lengthy report.
Schroeder’s recommendations – they must still be approved by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny – are the latest development in a suit that includes allegations of illicit behavior by one coach, bribes and threats by Cohane and intimidation and bullying by officials at the NCAA and UB.
“The university is pleased but not surprised by the judge’s decision,” UB said in a statement Friday. “We’ve maintained that Mr. Cohane chose to voluntarily leave university service in 1999 rather than exercise his due process rights.”
Cohane, who is suing the NCAA as part of a separate lawsuit, won an appeal in that case and is likely to appeal this ruling, as well.
Cohane’s suit against UB and the MAC, as well as a second suit against the NCAA, stem from his resignation – there’s a question as to whether it was voluntary – as head of the men’s basketball team in late 1999.
“Our resolve remains undaunted,” Sean O’Leary, Cohane’s lawyer, said in an interview Friday. “This is another step in the process.”
In his suits, Cohane accuses the NCAA of concealing evidence, altering testimony and bullying his former players into signing false affidavits as part of its investigation into alleged violations at UB.
At the heart of his legal fight is the belief that he was forced out as head coach because of a flawed investigation. He also argues that his former boss, then-Athletic Director Robert Arkeilpane, was behind an effort to push him out the door.
Even before the investigation was complete, Cohane resigned and UB was placed on two years’ probation.
“We have consistently said that the university dealt fairly with this situation at the time, and the university accepted NCAA and MAC penalties imposed as a result of rules infractions,” the university said in its statement.
Since Day One, the NCAA, MAC and UB have argued that Cohane’s resignation had more to do with his unethical behavior as coach than his claims of a grand conspiracy.
Chief among the allegations is the claim that Cohane violated NCAA rules by watching uncommitted recruits play pick-up basketball in the UB gym, a charge Cohane denies and UB officials claim was confirmed by the MAC and NCAA investigations.
They also claim Cohane tried to intimidate and bribe his onetime assistant into lying to NCAA investigators.
Cohane’s lawsuits have attracted national attention in large part because one of them is against the NCAA, which is under attack in courts across the country.
In addition, his suit against the NCAA challenges one of its most cherished legal protections – the notion that the organization is exempt from some of the Constitution’s most basic rights, including the right of individuals to legal protection from the government.
“We are ramping up for a court hearing on coach’s case against the NCAA,” O’Leary said of a hearing next week.
Cohane’s suit is similar to the landmark case filed by former Nevada Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Tarkanian’s case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in an 1988 decision preserving the NCAA’s long-standing protections.
Cohane, by contrast, has had some success against the NCAA.
In 2007, a federal appeals court ruled in Cohane’s favor – the Supreme Court let the ruling stand – when it overturned a lower court ruling dismissing his case. The suit is now back before Skretny.
For Cohane, the lawsuits are about more than taking on one of the nation’s most powerful amateur athletic associations. He genuinely feels wronged by the NCAA, UB and the MAC.
In his court papers, he claims his departure from UB is rooted in the two men most eager to see him leave – Arkeilpane and fellow assistant coach Eric “Rock” Eisenberg.
Arkeilpane never denied his unhappiness with Cohane, but he says Cohane’s conspiracy claims are baseless.