Why Boston College Can’t Hire Back Its Former Football Coach

Anyone who knows me well knows that I love college football.  I went to Boston College Law School and am a BC Eagles season ticket holder.  So I am interested in BC’s search for a new head football coach after the school’s decision to fire Frank Spaziani after a 2-10 season this year, including whether the school could hire former BC head coach Tom O’Brien back to the school after he left BC to coach the North Carolina State Wolfpack in 2006 (O’Brien was fired by NC State last month).

But apparently that can’t happen.  O’Brien signed a noncompete with NC State!  The clause in his contract forbids him from working as a football coach for any school in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), of which both NC State and BC are members:

In the event of a termination under section IX [for cause] or section X [without cause], COACH agrees that he will not obtain employment as a football coach with any ACC school for the time period remaining under this Agreement.  [O’Brien’s contract was supposed to run until December 2013.]  The parties agree that money damages would be inadequate to remedy a breach of this covenant; therefore, NC State shall have the right to obtain from any court such equitable, injunctive, or other relief as may be appropriate, including a decree enjoining coach from violating this paragraph.

Obviously, BC and NC State are direct competitors on the football field.  But what’s the interest that NC State is protecting with this clause?  In Massachusetts, the interests that an employer can protect with a noncompete are trade secrets, confidential information, and goodwill.  O’Brien’s contract doesn’t spell it out, but I think the clause likely is designed to protect NC State’s confidential information.  O’Brien likely has an intimate knowledge of the school’s current players, for example, what they’re good at and what they’re not.  Because BC and NC State play each other every year, if O’Brien were to coach BC next year, he could use this knowledge to BC’s advantage over the Wolfpack.  But don’t free agent players switch teams all the time in the NFL, taking with them knowledge of their former teams’ strengths and weaknesses (and playbook)?  Isn’t that part of the game?  For NC State, apparently it’s not.

O’Brien’s contract, and the contracts of many other college football coaches, are available here.  O’Brien’s noncompete clause appears on page 11 of his contract.

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