National Columnist

Lots of opinion on St. Joe's vs. O'Brien, but we need whole story


Having graduated from St. Joseph's, O'Brien is now taking graduate classes at UAB. (US Presswire)  
Having graduated from St. Joseph's, O'Brien is now taking graduate classes at UAB. (US Presswire)  

Everyone's an expert on the Todd O'Brien story, especially the experts. Jay Bilas knows how this story should end. Dick Vitale knows. And you? If you've read Todd O'Brien's first-person account on, you know too.

Seems obvious, right? The kid graduated from Saint Joseph's, still has a year of eligibility, and transferred to UAB to play. An NCAA rule was written in 2006 for just such a transfer, and schools allow it all the time. Michigan State's Brandon Wood came from Valparaiso, where he averaged more than 17 points a game. At Valpo, Wood was the best player on the team -- but coach Bryce Drew let him transfer as a graduate student to Michigan State.

Todd O'Brien wasn't the best player at Saint Joseph's. He wasn't even very good. Barely played last season. Wasn't going to play much this season. So he graduated and left, looking to play his final season somewhere else.

Only Saint Joseph's won't release him. He's at UAB, practicing with the team, taking classes, wondering what the hell went wrong. Everyone else seems to know, because suddenly everybody's an expert on Todd O'Brien.

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Because it's obvious.

Which means, it isn't obvious at all.

Don't you see? We're missing something here, something huge. We have to be, or Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli is the most unreasonable coach, the cruelest SOB, in the country. Martelli is a longtime coach with a track record, and while reviews on him are mixed -- some love the guy, some don't -- his track record says he's not unreasonable. He's not a cruel SOB.

Yet he's being one here, in this Todd O'Brien story. So what are we missing?

We're missing the Saint Joseph's side. Nothing much, right? Just half the story. We know what O'Brien says. He has taken his case public, including appearing on a podcast here at on Tuesday. That came one day after Sports Illustrated gave him a 2,000-word forum, which O'Brien used to paint Martelli as a monster who responded to O'Brien's transfer request this summer by threatening to "make some calls so that I would be dropped from my summer class and would no longer graduate."

Without a diploma, see, O'Brien couldn't transfer and play right away. A coach who would do what O'Brien accused Martelli of doing is a coach who should be fired by the school, then sued by the kid.

Neither has happened.

Does that mean O'Brien is lying about Martelli's threat? Not necessarily. I'm just saying neither has happened. Saint Joseph's hasn't fired Martelli, and O'Brien hasn't sued him.

Saint Joseph's hasn't done much of anything, really, other than issuing a statement from athletics director Don DiJulia for the Sports Illustrated story, then later issuing a university statement in response to it. Both statements were vague, hiding behind student-privacy law and passing the buck by noting "the NCAA legislative relief waiver team [initial decision] and the Division I Subcommittee for Legislative Relief [final decision] each reviewed the case and did not grant the requested [transfer] waiver."

Which is where I come in. Clearly this Todd O'Brien story isn't about me, but since I'm the one writing here, maybe you should know how I came to the position I've reached -- that it's too soon, too easy, to conclude O'Brien has been unfairly treated.

So I called DiJulia on Monday night and asked him two questions.

"First," I asked him, "why are you playing hardball with Todd O'Brien?"

"What's your second question?" DiJulia said.

"Did Martelli really threaten to have O'Brien dropped from the last class he needed to graduate? And if so, when will you be firing Martelli?"

Those were blunt questions, but I've learned from my own missteps. Six years ago I asked UConn if I could speak with coach Jim Calhoun, and was told he wasn't available. UConn knew my topic, but didn't know my opinion. They found out when they read it, and later that season Calhoun requested a private audience with me after a game at Indiana. I should've let him know exactly what I was writing, he told me, because he'd have taken my call had he known I was writing that.

Lesson learned, so on Monday night I told DiJulia, "Talk me off the ledge here, because your school and your coach look like they should be ripped."

I told DiJulia that I've been talked off the ledge before -- that I'd called an SEC coach four years ago, told him just how badly I was going to rip him for something he'd done. You never read that story because I never wrote it. Aware of my intentions, the SEC coach told me (off the record) why he had done the thing he'd done. I won't say who he is, but I believed his story in 2007 and backed off. Since then, I've learned that he had told me the truth.

I told DiJulia about that SEC coach, even told him who the coach was. Said to him, "Talk me off this ledge like [that SEC coach] talked me off the ledge."

DiJulia wouldn't do it. He stood firm behind the privacy issue, and I respect that. Last year my alma mater, the University of Florida, allowed federally protected information about Cam Newton to go public. I was horrified by that, and wrote as much. But now I'm going to hold it against DiJulia that he won't leak such information to me?

Nah. Won't do it. Besides, who needs federally protected information when the experts already seem to know what happened to Todd O'Brien?

Two respected analysts -- Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale, guys I happen to like -- went to Twitter on Monday to stick up for O'Brien (Vitale, here) or to stick it to Saint Joseph's (Bilas, here).

Minutes after Vitale's tweet, Martelli's daughter sent out her own missive, noting there are "[two] sides to every story ... People who think they know have no idea."

To which Vitale responded by tweeting directly to Elizabeth Martelli, "Love Phil but that kid should be allowed to play - just move on. Phil is too good 4 this."

It's crazy, this story. And convoluted. O'Brien was suspended briefly last season for his alleged involvement with a stolen laptop that saw a teammate kicked off the team. What if anything does that suspension have to do with this story? I don't know.

As for his choice of UAB, O'Brien told SI it was two things: academics, and assistant coach Donnie Marsh. So happens, Marsh played college basketball in the same Pennsylvania county where O'Brien went to high school. What if anything does that coincidence have to do with this story? I don't know.

In the grand scheme of things, Todd O'Brien is barely a blip on the college basketball landscape, a bench player who averaged one point in 7.2 minutes per game last season. But the hypocrisy of college sports -- millionaire coaches are allowed to jump from school to school, while unpaid players are not -- makes O'Brien relevant, and it makes people angry. And in an absence of information from Saint Joseph's, people are filling in the blanks with the easiest, most obvious answer available:

Saint Joseph's is screwing Todd O'Brien.

That's what people think, and that may even be true. I'm just telling you, I don't know if it's true.

You don't know, either.

Gregg Doyel is a columnist for He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.

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