Cornell University is suing its former head football coach, demanding that the one-time NFL quarterback cough up more than $100,000 for leaving the team with two years remaining on his contract.
Cornell hired the former coach, Richard Kent Austin, in 2010 to a five-year, $1.4-million deal in an attempt to resuscitate a squad that had only won two games the previous year.
“We have a gentleman who has character, ethics and approaches the game the right way for the right reasons,” Athletic Director Andy Noel said in announcing the hire.
But amid the incentives and perks in the $285,000-per-year contract, Cornell also stipulated that Austin would need to pay a hefty penalty should he leave the team short of the contract’s end date in January 2015.
The football team won 11 games and lost 19 under Austin in his three years at the University before a Canadian pro team courted him away from Ithaca. Cornell’s attorneys say that when Austin left the head coaching job at Cornell in December of 2012, he initiated the contract clause requiring him to pay the University $100,000 for terminating the deal two years early.
Cornell indicates in its court filings that Noel, in 2012, told Austin he could delay payment of the penalty until he sold a $630,000 Cayuga Heights house that the coach had purchased just months before leaving Cornell for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Ontario.
In December 2015, three years into the agreement between the athletic director and former coach allowing for the delay in payment, Austin was managing the Canadian Football League team but had neither sold his Cayuga Heights home nor paid the University. A lawyer for Cornell wrote in a stern letter to Austin that “this obligation must be resolved now.”
The University’s special counsel, Nelson E. Roth, told Austin in the Dec. 17, 2015 letter that if he could not sell the house, he would have to “obtain the funds elsewhere” so that he could fulfill the terms of his contract with Cornell.
Later that day, Austin emailed Noel asking if there was anything his former boss could do.
“It has NEVER been my intention to avoid this obligation and you know that there is no way for me to pay this obligation without selling the house at a value to make this work,” Austin said in the email, bemoaning taxes and mounting bills.
“Since it has now gone to the Special Counsel, is this out of your hands completely?” Austin asked Noel.
Austin told The Sun in 2011 that Cornell’s top officials, including Noel, had given him “a tremendous amount of support,” and even when Austin abruptly departed Cornell the following year, Noel expressed his gratitude in strong terms.
“I will miss him dearly and will be forever grateful for the contributions he has made to our program,” Noel said. “He is a first-class individual and an outstanding coach. It hurts to lose him.”
It is not clear from court records — filed on Tuesday in Tompkins County Court — whether the athletic director ever responded to Austin’s plea for help in 2015, but the contract between Austin and Cornell states that the athletic director has “sole discretion” to waive the $100,000 penalty, in extenuating circumstances.
Cornell is seeking the $100,000 it says Austin owes, as well as 9 percent interest for every year Cornell says Austin has owed the University and the costs associated with the lawsuit.
Valerie Cross Dorn, associate university counsel, is the lead attorney representing Cornell in the lawsuit. Cross Dorn, as well as John McKain, associate vice president for communications, did not respond to a list of questions regarding the lawsuit on Wednesday morning.
Lindsey Hadlock, a spokesperson, also did not respond to the list of questions. In an emailed statement, Hadlock said, “We have placed the issues before the court and will look forward to a judicial resolution of this contract breach.”
Austin did not respond to an email requesting comment on Wednesday morning.
Austin ultimately broke even on the Cayuga Heights house, selling it in April 2016 for the same price he paid — $630,000 — although the sale raises more questions than answers.
The buyer, listed on the deed as HTCFC, Inc., appears to be a parent company for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats — Austin’s employer. The incorporation is a North Carolina business corporation formed in 2003 whose president is Robert Young, owner of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, according to documents filed with the North Carolina Secretary of State.
Less than eight months after making the purchase, HTCFC sold the Cayuga Heights property at a loss of $170,000 to a man from West Palm Beach, Florida, deeds show.
Austin, who was selected 312th overall in the 1986 NFL Draft after setting the school record for passing yards at Ole Miss, failed to live up to the excitement a Southeastern Conference hire initially brought to the Cornell fanbase in 2010.
Upon leaving for the job in Ontario in 2012, Austin said Noel and others had his “utmost respect and admiration.”
“Cornell is a special place with very special people, and I will miss them all,” he said.