COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -Jim O'Brien, fired by Ohio State and essentially banned from coaching by the NCAA for paying a recruit, can return to the college sidelines after an appeal changed his punishment.
An NCAA ruling on March 10, 2006, all but prevented any colleges from hiring O'Brien until May 2009.
But in a decision released Thursday, an appeals committee changed the start date of the sanctions against the coach, making him free to return to coaching effective March 10.
``I am pleased that my 3 1/2-year battle with the NCAA has finally come to an end and resulted in victory,'' O'Brien said in a release issued through his Columbus attorneys. ``I have felt all along that the penalty imposed upon me by the (NCAA's) Committee on Infractions was both excessive and unjust. ... If I choose to coach again, I can do so without restriction.''
O'Brien has dabbled in broadcasting since his dismissal.
He already has won a lawsuit against Ohio State for wrongfully firing him and was awarded $2.2 million plus interest. The university has appealed that decision to the Ohio Supreme Court, which has yet to decide if it will hear the case.
``The fact that he is even under suspension by the NCAA illustrates the magnitude of the violations that occurred and reinforces that we took the appropriate action in terminating his contract,'' Ohio State spokesman Jim Lynch said.
O'Brien was a well-respected member of the coaching fraternity until his firing on June 8, 2004. Then-Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger said he was firing O'Brien for giving a 7-foot-3 Serbian recruit, Aleksandar Radojevic, a $6,000 loan in 1999 for family expenses to help the family during a family illness.
``I am troubled that a rule was admittedly violated and it took us five years to find out about it,'' Geiger said at the time of the firing.
O'Brien stressed he gave the player the money out of humanitarian concerns - Serbia was then involved in a war - and said the money did not influence Radojevic to later sign a letter of intent to play for the Buckeyes.
Before he enrolled in classes, the NCAA ruled Radojevic had been paid to play by a professional team in Europe and was ineligible to join the Ohio State team.
Thad Matta was later hired to coach Ohio State, leading the Buckeyes to three consecutive 20-win seasons including a 35-4 record and an appearance in the national title game a year ago.
O'Brien also has faced allegations that another one of his players, Boban Savovic, was housed, fed, clothed and supported by a Columbus family at the behest of team boosters.
The NCAA compelled Ohio State to vacate all records and wipe out any reference to making the Final Four in 1999, when Savovic was a member of the team. It also paid around $800,000 in tournament money back to the NCAA.

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