So much for the high road
MORGANTOWN - This is not the first time West Virginia has fired a preemptive strike in what is sure to become a protracted and messy legal battle.
The school is actually getting pretty good at this, or at least gaining experience.
Remember, it was stunning, too, in December of 2007 when everyone knew Rich Rodriguez was going to eventually sue WVU to escape paying his $4 million buyout, and the university beat him to the punch by suing him first.
So why wait now for the Big East to file suit over that sticky 27-month clause in the by-laws? Have attorneys, will sue.
Does anyone else, though, think this is a bit over the top? Yeah, I thought so.
On the one hand, WVU is backed into a corner here and time is of the essence. Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas flat-out admits that West Virginia was invited to that league in part because WVU officials were confident they could begin play next year. The Big 12 needs a 10th team to satisfy the requirements of its television partners. So the sooner the process starts, the sooner it will be settled.
But doesn't the way WVU is going about it seem a bit like cutting butter with a chainsaw?
I wrote a few days ago that the school should probably root for the Big East to reconstitute quickly for two reasons. First, the sooner the Big East adds members, the sooner it has no room for West Virginia on league schedules. And second, it's just the civil way of doing things in the wholly uncivil landscape of conference realignment. In other words, take the high road, man.
Well, so much for the high road.
Granted, there are good reasons for acting quickly, not the least of which is to put it initially in a West Virginia court and not one in Providence, R.I., where the Big East is headquartered. And, too, if you are filing suit, you'd better make your case as strong as possible. So if that means painting John Marinatto as Bozo the Clown, well, I guess there's not much choice.
But there are two things I can't help but think could come back to bite West Virginia. One, the school's main argument in the suit - aside from Marinatto failing in his responsibilities to maintain a vital Big East - seems to be that Pitt and Syracuse leaving for the ACC was the last straw. WVU wants to paint itself as an innocent victim. Watch those phone records, though, because if there are traces of West Virginia contacting the ACC, the SEC, the Big 12 or anyone else prior to the announcements by Pitt and Syracuse, suddenly much of that innocence is lost.
Second, there are the mere attitudes involved here.
I'm not naïve enough to believe that the Big East was ever going to treat West Virginia with kindness, but there was at least a chance for an amicable parting of the ways. Look at Pitt and Syracuse. They aren't raising a fuss with the Big East holding tight to its 27-month clause. Granted, there isn't any urgency in their departures (the ACC is apparently fine with waiting two more years), but eventually the Big East is going to be ready to move on and won't want those schools muddying their scheduling waters. The Big East says that's not the case and that those schools will be held to the 27 months, but at the point new members are added, that just becomes a negotiating ploy. Pitt and Syracuse may have to buy their way out, but the offer to do that short of 27 months will still come.
As for West Virginia? Not on your life. Not now. Not after trashing the living room on the way out of the party.
If I'm the Big East this only strengthens my resolve. New schools? Need to free up scheduling space? Fine, let Pitt and Syracuse go. But not West Virginia. Hold WVU's feet to the fire and don't let it go, no matter how inconvenient its presence might be. It's become a grudge match now.
All of which is not to say that West Virginia won't be playing in the Big 12 next season. It will. All of the legal posturing is just that - posturing. If West Virginia wants to play in the Big 12 it will just walk away from the Big East.
There will be damages involved, though. If WVU isn't successful in this initial court move - or any that immediately follow - checks will be written. Big ones. If I'm the Big East, I don't just sue West Virginia for TV money and revenue sharing, I send my member schools after WVU for breach of contract, too. I bury WVU in court cases from Tampa to Piscataway and from Storrs to Milwaukee.
The bottom line is that West Virginia has taken a huge gamble in trying to machine gun its way out of the Big East. In taking the offensive, it has likely put itself squarely on the defensive, not only against the Big East leadership, but the league's members, as well. Sure, a lot of them want out, too (UConn, Rutgers, Louisville), but they suddenly went from perhaps being happy for one of their lucky brothers who escaped to "Hey! What?''
There is also the perception that Pitt and Syracuse are rooting for WVU in its legal efforts. If you really think about it, though, that might not be the case. Again, it goes back to those two major points West Virginia is trying to make in its suit. If it is somehow successful in proving Marinatto's incompetence, fine. But Pitt and Syracuse can't argue West Virginia's other main point, which is that Pitt and Syracuse's departure was the last straw.
And what of public perception? West Virginia had it hard enough trying to convince people that it wasn't being petty for holding Rodriguez to the fire - remember all the jilted girlfriend comparisons? Now the school is Rodriguez, bad-mouthing its ex in order to get out from under the prenuptial agreement. That's not likely to play well.
Again, though, in the end it will be resolved. Money will exchange hands. Ultimately all of this, even if WVU outright wins its suit, will come down to who pays what.
Which is exactly how it would have worked out had West Virginia not taken this hardline stance.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.