Michigan to help coach pay the buyout specified in his contract
July 10, 2008 4:00 AM
By Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
West Virginia University gets its $4 million.
Rich Rodriguez gets a delayed payment plan for his $1.5 million contribution, gets much the same terms he received from Michigan in their mid-December negotiations -- which the Post-Gazette reported Dec. 17 -- when the football coach left West Virginia and gets the same buyout amount as former Mountaineers basketball coach John Beilein, also now at Michigan.
So who really won this 6 1/2-month episode of a messy divorce court that concluded yesterday in a settlement?
One legal expert said the victors were his former employers and the people who wrangle contracts for major-college coaches across America.
"I would think this is a victory for West Virginia," said Duke University's Paul Haagen, who told the Post-Gazette in late January that Rodriguez had a difficult case to prove and was later approached by university lawyers to serve as a court expert, though was never formally retained.
"What you may see is this turning into more and more similar situations. Rather than try to prove damages, you try to get negotiated terms where people could work this out [beforehand]. The term in the business world is 'golden handcuffs,' something difficult for people to [escape]."
West Virginia and its Board of Governors took Rodriguez to court 10 days after he accepted the Michigan position, and yesterday a reconfigured board approved the settlement.
So ended a saga that earned the school attention across sports America.
In the settlement University of Michigan officials urged Rodriguez's side to broker, the school's athletic department will pay $2.5 million -- nearly 10 times the previous purported record for such a payoff -- of the $4 million buyout specified in the contract Rodriguez reached with West Virginia in August. Rodriguez will pay $1.5 million over a three-year span that begins in 21/2 years, with $500,000 payments due at the end of 2010, '11 and '12.
Michigan officials also agreed in the settlement to pick up Rodriguez's attorney fees and court costs, though West Virginia will not receive either of those or interest on money owed -- Rodriguez's first installment was due in January. University attorney Tom Flaherty said the expenses incurred by his firm and co-counsel Bob Fitzsimmons, who successfully defended Beilein a year earlier against the university, have not been computed, though the board recently asked for an estimate. "I believe it will be reasonable," Flaherty said of those fees.
"I think I'm a little surprised they caved entirely," Haagen, co-director of the Duke law school's Center for Sports Law and Policy, said of Rodriguez and Michigan. "I think it was because [they] didn't want the shadow to hang around. But I think West Virginia had a very strong case."
Michigan's $2.5 payment -- a gesture Haagen called "fairly remarkable" -- is due to arrive at West Virginia in the next three weeks.
The largest previous settlement over a coach's severance is believed to be the $250,000 or so Gerry DiNardo paid Vanderbilt in 1999, after a five-year legal tussle sparked by his 1994 departure for LSU with a year remaining on his contract.
Only two other NCAA institutions are known to be in court with former football coaches: new Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill sued his former employer in February, asking a judge to decide if he were legally bound to pay a third of a year's salary, about $58,000, that his contract stated was due Southern Illinois as a buyout; and Tampa Bay Buccaneers assistant Raheem Morris was sued in January by his former employer, Kansas State, seeking six months salary, moving expenses and a signing bonus for a total of $106,646 over its former defensive coordinator's contract, which had two years remaining.
Rodriguez's camp declined comment, though Michigan athletic director Bill Martin released a statement at midday: "To help Rich focus on the challenges ahead, we have worked with him to resolve the dispute between him and West Virginia over the terms of his buyout. Although he continues to disagree with the validity of the terms, Rich and the rest of us at Michigan felt that it would be best to get this distracting issue behind us."
Ed Pastilong, West Virginia's athletic director, said in a prepared statement: "It's good that this matter is behind us. Now it is important for the WVU football program to focus on the future. Bill Stewart, his new staff and the student-athletes are off to a great start."
There had been ongoing discussions between representatives from both sides, with football camp set to open in roughly three weeks. Flaherty said Rodriguez's team made an "overture" before depositions in June involving outgoing President Mike Garrison and exiting Board of Governor member Steve Farmer, but "that was rejected without a counter [offer] because it was out of the question." He added that Rodriguez's Charleston-based lawyer, Sean McGinley, called him Monday with "a very serious, good-faith effort to resolve the case," and that the two lawyers had late-night meetings Monday and Tuesday with the court-ordered mediator approved by both sides, Frank Fragale of Charleston, to complete the settlement.
Monongalia County Judge Robert Stone in late May ordered mediation by Aug. 1, and, failing a settlement there, set Nov. 10 to hear motions. A trial wasn't expected until after the football season.
Flaherty said one of the first congratulatory calls he received yesterday morning was from West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who he added had no role in the lawsuit.
In an interview on state-wide Metro News radio, Manchin asked West Virginians to forgive and forget Rodriguez: "I believe all along Rich has gotten bad advice. But this chapter has finished. And with that, we as West Virginians have to let it go and move on."
NOTE -- In an unrelated matter, Mountaineers officials announced the kickoff times for three home games this fall: 3:30 p.m. Aug. 30 vs. Villanova, 3:30 p.m. Sept. 27 vs. Marshall (ESPN Regional), and noon Oct. 4 vs. Rutgers (ESPN Regional).