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Willie Taggart never signed a final contract. Here’s why it could matter

Kentucky had a similar situation with Billy Gillispie. It went to court before a seven-figure settlement.

On the day Florida State hired Willie Taggart as its football coach, the Seminoles typed up a nine-page letter of agreement.

The letter called itself a binding document, but it was meant to be a placeholder until the two sides finalized a formal contract, which they intended to do “as soon as practicable.”

That never happened.

Taggart spent his entire Seminoles tenure —from his hiring on Dec. 5, 2017 to his firing on Nov. 3 of this year — without ever signing a contract beyond the initial letter. according to FSU.

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“This is highly uncommon — a letter of intent or agreement without a formalized contract,” said Martin J. Greenberg, a Wisconsin-based attorney who founded Marquette University’s National Sports Law Institute. “It creates nothing but legal issues.”

Those issues have the potential to linger even after Taggart’s dismissal and could affect discussions over his eight-figure buyout, according to experts who analyzed the document at the request of the Tampa Bay Times.

The obvious problem of not having a formal contract is that, well, there’s not a formal contract. The initial letter of agreement alludes to a future deal four separate times. The fact that it was never executed, Greenberg said, could allow one side to argue that Taggart was merely an at-will employee.

That’s what Kentucky did a decade ago with basketball coach Billy Gillispie. When the Wildcats fired Gillispie in 2009 after two seasons (sound familiar?), they argued they didn’t have to pay his buyout because he never signed a formal contract, aside from their initial memo of understanding.

In this March 12, 2009, file photo, Kentucky head coach Billy Gillispie questions a call during the first half of an NCAA men's college basketball game against Mississippi at the SEC Tournament in Tampa. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | ASSOCIATED PRESS ]

Gillispie sued. Kentucky countersued. After almost five months of legal back-and-forth, Kentucky agreed to pay Gillispie almost $3 million — about half of what he claimed he was owed.

Taggart’s buyout is about six times what Kentucky paid Gillispie, but there’s a catch. FSU’s payment will be offset if Taggart secures “subsequent employment” before the term ends in early 2024.

That leads to a second potential issue, said Matt Wilson, who has researched coaching contracts for years.

“What defines subsequent employment?” said Wilson, Embry-Riddle’s senior director of development for athletics.

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In some formal contracts, that term is clear. Jim McElwain’s buyout at Florida would only be offset if he took another SEC job. Al Golden’s deal at Miami called for an offset if he took another job as a broadcaster or college or pro coach. But Taggart’s letter is open-ended.

“What that says to me is any damn job you get, whether it’s being an insurance salesman or pumping gas, is an offset,” said Greenberg, whose previous clients have included former Georgia coach Mark Richt.

The final potential issue could have been the biggest but is probably moot. If FSU fired Taggart without cause, it would owe him 85 percent of what’s left on his six-year, $30 million deal. But if the Seminoles terminated his employment for cause, they’d owe him nothing.

The problem: FSU’s letter is vague about what “for cause” means.

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Most coaching contracts have a page or two of possible reasons to terminate employment without owing a buyout. The Seminoles’ contract with offensive coordinator Kendal Briles list 15 examples. Dan Mullen’s contract at Florida spends more than four pages on the issue.

Taggart’s deal has this: “the grounds include but are not limited to serious violation(s) of NCAA, ACC or rules and regulations or serious personal misconduct.”

“You’ve got this type of gray area,” Wilson said. “He’s kind of open and exposed, and in some regards the university is open and exposed, too, by not having the formal breakdown — especially when you’re talking about that kind of money here.”

That kind of money, remember, is about $18 million.

To be clear, FSU officials have never given any indication that they fired Taggart for cause. But athletic director David Coburn did say “decisions have to be made” surrounding Taggart’s buyout.

RELATED: FSU athletic director David Coburn: ‘6-6 isn’t good enough’

“It has not been finalized,” Coburn said a day after firing Taggart. “We’ll be in discussions on that for a while one would imagine.”