Beyond O'Brien

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

You had to figure that if Jim O'Brien was going to get fired after seven seasons at Ohio State, the prime reason would have been that he wasn't cheating, not that he was.

When it came to by-the-book coaches in college basketball, O'Brien was near the top of the list. As a result, Ohio State's winning percentage has suffered because he has been unable to land top-level prep players over the last few years.

But O'Brien was fired Tuesday because in 1999 he paid Aleksandar Radojevic, a 7-foot-3 recruit from Yugoslavia, $6,000. Radojevic signed with OSU out of junior college but was ruled ineligible by the NCAA due to his previous association with a European professional team.

The coach defended himself by saying he was just helping Radojevic's impoverished family in war-torn Yugoslavia and claimed the money had no influence on the player's decision to sign with the Buckeyes.

O'Brien has built up enough goodwill through the years to make that story at least plausible, but the fact is that paying a recruit is so clearly a violation of NCAA rules that Ohio State was left in a very difficult position. Firing O'Brien was not out of hand.

He certainly deserves to coach again. This one mistake shouldn't ruin a stellar career marked by success (1999 Final Four) and no previous hint of scandal. O'Brien always had been rigid in his belief that if he couldn't win the right way, he wouldn't win.

But he left himself open for dismissal with this one.

The question now for Ohio State is who is next? Because of the wealth of prep talent in the state of Ohio and the lack of another in-state Big Ten school to battle with, this is one of the nation's most coveted positions.

But for a variety of reasons the Buckeyes rarely have competed to their potential, only sporadically competing at the national level since Hall of Famer Fred Taylor retired in 1976.

The Buckeyes will have a chance to lure a hot coaching prospect, whether it is Marquette's Tom Crean, Rutgers and ex-Kent State coach Gary Waters, Xavier's Thad Matta, North Carolina State's Herb Sendek or ex-college coach Tim Floyd.

But if the school really wants to have some fun the next few years, really wants to try something different, then the choice is obvious: OSU alum and Orrville, Ohio, native Bob Knight.

First off, you take it to the bank that Knight isn't going to pay any recruit anything, an increasingly rare thing to say about college coaches. Unfortunately the media considers a Knight press conference diatribe much bigger news than major NCAA violations or a zero graduation rate at a program, but that doesn't mean it really is.

Second, if there is one thing that the Hall of Famer has proven during his three years at Texas Tech, it is that he still is among the very, very best coaches in college basketball. If you can win in Lubbock, you can win anywhere.

Now give him close access to all that prep talent in the Midwest that he used to win three NCAA titles at Indiana, and Ohio State quickly would become a Big Ten and national contender.

But most interestingly it would be a roll of the dice, an entertaining, why-not shot at bringing Knight back to Columbus to break Dean Smith's all-time record for wins. Ohio State, for so long a ho-hum program that usually is good but rarely is interesting, suddenly would be college hoops' top ticket.

Seats at the Value City Arena immediately would become the hottest commodity in town, even bigger than football. Well, maybe.

But still, can you imagine the drama and entertainment of Knight leading the Buckeyes into Indiana?

Critics will always say that you have to make some deal with the devil by bringing in Knight, that an explosion at a salad bar is always a possibility. But for the most part, Knight minds his own business and most of that stuff is overblown because of who Knight is, not what Knight does.

Ohio State has an easy decision if it wants to make its basketball program one of the most high-profile, closely followed and exciting programs in the nation.

Might Knight embarrass the school? Hey, you never know.

But when it comes to college basketball coaches, when a Jim O'Brien gets caught paying recruits, you really never know with anyone anymore.

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