But other donors say they'll pull back millions in flap over coach
December 19, 2007 5:00 AM
West Virginia University
From left, donor Ben Statler, WVU President Mike Garrison, Jo Statler and Cancer Center Director Scot Remick in October.
By Bill Schackner and Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A retired coal executive responsible for the biggest individual gift in West Virginia University's history isn't happy that his alma mater lost its head football coach.
But Ben Statler says he doesn't blame campus administrators for Rich Rodriguez's departure for the University of Michigan. In fact, Mr. Statler said his $25 million gift announced in October is not in jeopardy, nor is his overall support of WVU.
Other donors, arguing that the school should have done more to keep Mr. Rodriguez, have said they will pull back or cancel donations worth millions.
"Rich made a business decision. I'm disappointed that he left. But he's gone, and we just have to move forward from where we are, and we will," Mr. Statler said in a phone interview yseterday from his Florida home. "I'm a big supporter."
Earlier yesterday, Stephen Goodwin, chairman of WVU's board of governors, weighed in on the escalating controversy. He delivered a blunt message to those, including donors, who have second-guessed the university, its president, Mike Garrison, and its athletic director, Ed Pastilong.
"At the end of the day, the university is governed by its board and its president, and the people they appoint to positions of responsibility," Mr. Goodwin said. "Making donations to a public university does not entitle anyone to dictate policy or personnel."
In Grant Town, W.Va., Mr. Rodriguez's hometown, Mayor Robert Riggs ordered two signs taken down that proclaimed it as the "Home of WVU Head Football Coach Rich Rodriguez." Mr. Riggs said he wasn't doing it out of anger, but to pre-empt vandalism or theft by outraged Mountaineer fans.
Since word of Mr. Rodriguez's departure surfaced Sunday, a handful of wealthy donors primarily responsible for keeping him from leaving 53 weeks earlier has expressed anger and frustration.
As of last night, there was an organized group of at least seven West Virginia donors who had informed university administrators that they would no longer make gifts to the school.
Such gifts come with escape clauses, enabling the discontented benefactors to renege on donations already pledged.
Robert Reynolds, a former Fidelity Investments chief operating officer, and Ken Kendrick, part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, already have withdrawn university-wide donations totaling roughly $12 million, which Mr. Kendrick called "the tip of the iceberg."
"It's beyond sad," Mr. Kendrick said, painting some members of the university's athletic department as "arrogant, mean-spirited and intellectually bankrupt. It can't be permitted to continue."
University officials yesterday had no comment on the financial impact of the controversy.
Mr. Kendrick also cited without elaboration "egregious acts by the university across a wide waterfront" as other reasons he is withdrawing his support.
He isn't alone, he said, calling a group of fellow donors equally "shocked and apoplectic."
Stuart Robbins, a Wall Street retiree in Florida and former chairman of the WVU Foundation, which raises funds and offers support for the university, said the athletic department has lost "six key senior professionals in eight months, all under circumstances that are somewhat strange."
Mr. Robbins was referring to Mr. Rodriguez; basketball coach John Beilein, who also left for Michigan; the head of athletic department fund raising; the swimming coach; and others.
"At the very minimum you have to say something is wrong with our retention policy, because we've lost too many big names. At the very worst, you have to question our methodology with how we handle people.
"Having said that, I share the frustration of many of the big donors ... in the way we've handled things. I have voiced that in the past. Like many of them, I have offered my services, and to date, they haven't particularly been used. That's fine. That's a management choice. But that works as long as you're performing."
Car dealership magnate Bob Robinson of Wheeling, W.Va., didn't publicly criticize the administration, but he said he feels the pain of many in West Virginia.
"I feel like the rest of the state. My heart is broken," he said. "I feel like I went to the prom and somebody stole my girl.
"And this state has to save hard for [Mountaineer football and basketball] tickets. They've invested everything. So when something like this happens, it creates a firestorm."
Donors critical of the university's handling of the Rodriguez matter said the school was perhaps within $200,000 of keeping the coach.
Those supporters, who kicked in millions last December for the six-year, $1.9 million-per-year contract that helped to keep Mr. Rodriguez from moving to the University of Alabama, wanted to absorb these new costs. But the school did not take them up on the offer, some of them said.
"When push came to shove, we weren't included in a possible solution," Wheeling, W.Va., lawyer Dean Hartley said this week.
Jim Chamberlain, a WVU Foundation board member, said the university's decision made no sense to him. "The only thing I can think of is that somebody's ego was on the line, and it wasn't Rich's," he said.
Mr. Goodwin's statement offered a vastly different assessment. He said WVU "went to the ends of the earth to keep the coach here -- and clearly, some of our major donors assisted the school in that effort."
"There were some very minor issues that he raised with the administration -- and people were working on them," Mr. Goodwin said.
"But he clearly was looking for an excuse to leave -- he looked last year, and again this year.
"But when he went to visit [Michigan] and then came back to campus with demands based on those minor issues, university officials simply told him they would continue to work the issues," Mr. Goodwin said. "He was asked to focus on the student-athletes and the upcoming [Fiesta Bowl game against the University of Oklahoma].''
He said within the past year, Mr. Rodriguez's salary was increased by 70 percent; his assistants' salaries were increased; a $2 million academic center for the football team was built; and construction was started on a $6 million locker room renovation. Mr. Reynolds said the renovation project, included in Mr. Rodriguez's last contract, was in danger of falling apart at midseason until he stepped forward to pay half those costs.
University officials yesterday would not comment on the status of their search for Mr. Rodriguez's replacement.
Mr. Goodwin pledged that "whoever comes in as coach will know that they can count on support from WVU on big issues and small issues."