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WVU's Big East exit casts ugly shadow

MORGANTOWN - There couldn't have been a more festive atmosphere to Tuesday's press conference at Milan Puskar Stadium celebrating the marriage between West Virginia University and the Big 12.

Dignitaries were there. Food was served. The Mountaineer pep band played the fight song.

Unfortunately, though, before the event, another fight song had been played.

The Big East presidents met in Philadelphia and declared they'd fight WVU's lawsuit, which was filed on Monday, and the school's intention to leave the conference before the 27 months agreed on in exit bylaws.

"In light of the lawsuit filed by West Virginia [Monday]," said Big East commissioner John Marinatto via a release, "the presidents also discussed and confirmed our continuing commitment to enforce the conference's 27-month notification period for schools choosing to leave. The conference believes these claims to be wholly without merit and will explore all its legal options to protect its interests and to ensure that West Virginia lives up to its obligations."

The proverbial line in the sand was drawn. Marinatto told the Associated Press he was "stunned" by WVU's tactics.

And one can understand why. WVU wanted out so desperately, wished for a safe haven so much, it seemingly told the Big 12 it would join next season despite the bylaw provision.

In the end, will the Mountaineers begin play in the Big 12 next year? Probably. WVU was shrewd in filing the lawsuit instead of simply moving to the Big 12 and waiting to be sued. The school can claim that when its lawsuit was filed, the Big East was in chaos and not a viable conference. It can claim the league "breached its fiduciary duty" to "maintain a balance between football-playing and non-football members."

In the end, perhaps there will be a settlement and WVU can go on its merry way.

But at a cost. And not just financially.

WVU, which wore the white hat in the mess that was the Rich Rodriguez departure, has unquestionably donned the black hat in this case. Marinatto, heretofore seen as a bumbling commissioner desperately trying to keep his league together - and his job - will now be seen as the good guy. As Rodriguez tried to weasel out of his contract buyout, WVU is trying to weasel out of its notification period.

And that's not how we in this state roll. West Virginians are known for their handshake and their good word.

It's already met with national scorn. One writer criticized the school's lack of class. Asked if its lesson to students is to litigate out of, rather than honor, a contract. And the hits will continue.

On Tuesday, West Virginia University president Jim Clements called it a "historic day." Athletic director Oliver Luck said he was "proud and honored to accept the invitation to join the Big 12 Conference."

But WVU isn't honorably leaving one conference for another.

Sure, the league had problems. Big ones. For much of West Virginia's time within, the football side was a punchline. But the league saved a Mountaineer program adrift via the football conference, opened the door to BCS games and provided great men's and women's basketball moments.

And then it was stunned by WVU's declaration.

Meanwhile, WVU partied on Tuesday. There were smiles . There were laughs. ("Probably the only people who are hesitant about accepting West Virginia," said Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas, "are some of our coaches, 'cause they know the quality of West Virginia athletics.") There were handshakes.

But the celebration felt odd. Didn't feel right.

Because the way WVU is leaving the Big East isn't right.

Neinas was asked if West Virginia's invitation was contingent on being able to join next season.

"Yes," said the interim commissioner. "We needed a 10th member for next season to fulfill our TV commitments. There's an inventory that goes with the contract. We have to be able to [fulfill] that."

Is he expecting West Virginia to begin play next season?

"Yes sir."

If it can't?

"Well then I guess for the first time in college football history we'll have home-and-home [games between conference members]," he laughed.

It was a jovial atmosphere. But ...

Are there any contingency plans in case WVU is ordered to remain in the Big East?

"Oklahoma State told me they don't want to play Oklahoma twice," Neinas said, and added he's "not concerned because I trust the two gentlemen [Clements and Luck] on each side of me."

He did get serious for a moment.

"It would be very difficult to obtain games at this late stage," Neinas said. "But we fully expect West Virginia to be there."

Of course, it will also be very difficult for the Big East members on WVU's 2012 schedule to obtain games at this late stage. Unless they demand, say, incoming Conference USA members to join next season. Somewhere, schools will be left in binds.

Clements was peppered on the subject. He was asked if he was optimistic the lawsuit will be settled by July.

"Yeah, but I don't want to make any comments on that issue," he said.

He and Luck both refused to comment on the litigation.

Finally, though, I asked the one question I traveled up Interstate 79 to ask: Do you feel good about the exit?

"As I said by phone on Friday, during the media availability, we were a very proud member of the Big East for a long time, and a good member," Clements said. "But now it's all about the Big 12 and we are thrilled to be a member of the Big 12. The stuff with the Big East will work itself out."

And indeed it will.

But at a cost.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.

 

 


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