John Marinatto, Big East commissioner: "A contract is a contract."
By Jenn Menendez Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
West Virginia University made clear Monday its game plan to begin playing sports in the Big 12 Conference next fall: It is suing the conference it is leaving -- the Big East.
The university filed a lawsuit against the conference in Monongalia (W.Va.) County Circuit Court, alleging poor leadership and conflicting needs among member schools that led to the "denigration of the conference."
The suit claims a breach of contract that should void the 27-month withdrawal period in the Big East bylaws.
The Mountaineers joined the Big 12 Conference last week and immediately announced a plan to begin play next fall.
West Virginia is planning a 2:30 p.m. reception today on its Morgantown campus with Big 12 officials. The university had no comment on the lawsuit.
"The denigration of the Big East football conference is a direct and proximate result of ineffective leadership and breach of fiduciary duties to the football schools by the Big East Conference and its Commissioner," the suit reads. "The Big East and its Commissioner failed to take proactive measures to maintain, let alone enhance, the level of competition for the Big East football schools."
The Big East, meanwhile, has stood by its bylaws.
Neither the University of Pittsburgh nor Syracuse University has indicated that they wouldn't honor the 27-month period since those schools announced plans in September to leave for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"We are disappointed that West Virginia has adopted this strategy and cannot imagine why it believes it does not have to respect and honor the bylaws it agreed to as a member of the Big East," said commissioner John Marinatto in a statement. "Based on an initial review of the lawsuit, it is clear that the allegations and claims in it are false and inaccurate. Certainly there is nothing in it that would justify WVU's not fulfilling its obligations. To put it simply, a contract is a contract."
Mr. Marinatto went a step further and intimated that the Big East might have some legal plans of its own.
"Once we have reviewed the filing, we will explore all our legal options and will act vigorously to ensure that WVU lives up to all its obligations to our conference," he said. "In the meantime, this lawsuit will not interfere in any way with our ongoing efforts to strengthen and expand the Big East."
It's unclear if other programs will follow suit.
Scott Andresen, an attorney and professor of sports law at Northwestern University in Chicago, said the suit could work.
"I think it might've been filed to quicken the process," Mr. Andresen said. "The Big East doesn't want somebody who doesn't want to be there. On some level, they're going to try and extract a little pain out of West Virginia. At the end of the day, I think West Virginia will be in their new next conference next year."
The suit, West Virginia University Board of Governors v. the Big East Conference, claims league instability dates to 1996, when Notre Dame was allowed entrance as a non-football school, followed by Providence, St. John's, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Villanova as non-football members.
The suit then says after Pitt and Syracuse left, Connecticut publicly acknowledged it was looking for another conference. Then Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati engaged in discussions with other conferences "for the purpose of trying to obtain invitations to join these conferences and withdraw from the Big East."
The suit also alleges that West Virginia believes the Big East will lose its position as a conference whose football champion is an automatic qualifier for a Bowl Championship Series game and, "[a]ccordingly the Big East Conference and its Commissioner, through their actions, breached their contract to WVU and nullified and voided the Bylaws."
Expansion is expected to be the main subject today in Philadelphia, where Big East officials will meet.
None of the schools that are leaving will be in attendance.
Multiple reports have said Mr. Marinatto has been courting programs around the country and is expected to extend invitations to Central Florida, Southern Methodist University and Houston for all sports, and Boise State, Air Force and Navy for football.
It is not the first time West Virginia has been involved in legal action about conference realignment.
In 2003, West Virginia joined Connecticut, Pitt, Rutgers and Virginia Tech in a lawsuit against Boston College, Miami and the ACC, seeking monetary damages and an injunction preventing the two colleges from joining the ACC.