Former St. John’s men’s basketball coach Mike Anderson said he was fired with cause in March only so the school could avoid paying his buyout and use the money to hire Rick Pitino, per arbitration documents obtained by ESPN on Thursday.
Anderson is seeking $45.6 million from the university — $11.4 million that was left on his contract and an additional $34.2 million for “punitive” damages — according to the “notice of intention to arbitrate” filed last month by Anderson’s lawyer, John Singer of Singer Deutsch.
According to the termination letter obtained by ESPN, Anderson was fired for “failure to create and support an environment that strongly encourages student-athletes who are in the men’s basketball program to meet all university academic requirements,” “failure to perform your duties and responsibilities in a manner that reflected positively on St. John’s University … in actions [that] brought serious discredit” to the school and “failure to appropriately supervise and communicate with your assistant coaches.”
Per documents obtained by ESPN, Anderson claims St. John’s officials had tried to offer him a buyout for less than the $11.4 million remaining on his deal before the school accused him of “fictitious” problems within his program and fired him for cause.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, St. John’s University said it disputed “the wildly inaccurate claims” and that it would “vigorously defend those claims in arbitration.”
On the day he was fired, Anderson claims the school had already entered advanced talks with Pitino, who was officially hired March 20.
Anderson said that he never changed and that he represented the school in a “first class manner” after he signed an extension in 2021 and until the day he was dismissed in March. In the documents, Anderson said St. John’s instead focused “on marshaling and amalgamating enough assets” for an offer “to the legendary and scandal-mired NBA and college basketball coach Rick Pitino to join St. John’s as the new head coach.”
Terms of the deal between Pitino and St. John’s were not announced, but sources told ESPN that it was for six years and reportedly is worth $20 million.
“St. John’s manufactured out of whole cloth its preposterous ‘for cause’ termination of Mr. Anderson’s employment with the sole purpose of attempting to extricate the University from its $11.4 million ironclad contractual obligation to Mr. Anderson, specifically so that it could otherwise divert those funds to Pitino,” the filing by Anderson’s representative says.
In his four seasons at St. John’s, Anderson had a 68-56 record and was 30-46 in the Big East.
In the documents, Anderson, who had previously announced his intent to sue St. John’s, said the school in February began making false accusations that he had been dealing with cognitive issues. During a “hostile” phone call, per Anderson’s legal filing, Joseph Oliva, the general counsel for St. John’s, told one of the former coach’s representatives that Anderson “did not in any way resemble the coach from the prior four years” and seemed “about gone” mentally.
In his legal filing, Anderson also rebutted the school’s claim that his team had struggled academically, citing his program’s Big East academic excellence award in 2020 for the highest cumulative GPA in the conference — the first in program history. He said his team’s GPA slipped after COVID but never to a degree that would jeopardize his program’s APR (academic progress rate).
The arbitration documents filed by Anderson also accuse the school of hypocrisy by firing him for cause but hiring Pitino, who had been “enmeshed in one highly publicized, sensational scandal after another over the years.”
Louisville fired Pitino for cause in 2017, citing an investigation into the program allegedly hiring escorts for parties to help recruit players that resulted in the school vacating its 2013 national title and an FBI investigation surrounding former recruit Brian Bowen II.
The final ruling from the NCAA’s outside enforcement arm on the FBI case exonerated Pitino, and his lawsuit against Louisville for the amount remaining on his contract was settled two years ago.