Who Has the Early Edge?

So, who really came out ahead in round one of the Rich Rodriguez – WVU buyout fight -- a battle that could rage longer than the Hundred Years' War?

Most media accounts termed Thursday's rulings by Monongalia County Circuit Judge Robert Stone as wins for both sides. Stone ruled that Rodriguez would get the chance to prove that he was fraudulently induced to sign his final contract with West Virginia University, which included a $4 million dollar buyout. He also made rulings in favor of West Virginia, including the dropping of the WVU Foundation as a co-defendant and allowing the school to ask Rodriguez for documents concerning his hiring at Michigan.

While the knee-jerk reaction was one of a split decision or tie, a closer examination reveals that the school probably came out ahead on this first day of court action.

First, Rodriguez' "win" was a minor one. No one really expected the judge to totally throw out Rodriguez' claim. That would almost certainly have opened grounds for appeal, as there was no evidence to show that Rodriguez' claim was frivolous, at least on the face of the matter. Proving that West Virginia acted in bad faith, or made verbal promises that it later reneged on, is another matter entirely. Rodriguez will have to come up hard evidence that WVU acted as it did with intent to force him into signing the contract under duress, and with the knowledge that the school was defrauding him. Rodriguez and his mercenaries may think they have a smoking gun in that regard, but if they do, it had better be more powerful than the cap pistols they have fired in the past.

Therefore, trumpeting this as a win for Rodriguez is about as important as chest-thumping after defeating Eastern Washington. Rodriguez gets to continue his case, but that's about it.

On the flip side, West Virginia got two wins which were much more significant. First, the WVU Foundation was dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit, as it was ruled that the Foundation was not a party to the contract. That could eliminate introduction of claims concerning alleged inappropriate use of 1100 Club funds, which are controlled by the Foundation. WVU previously admitted that funds from that account were used to cover other expenses, but that the monies were repaid. While West Virginia admits to no wrongdoing in that regard, not having to mount a defense against such claims should simplify at least one aspect of what promises to be a complex, lengthy fight.

Even more importantly, West Virginia will be allowed access to any documentation and correspondence between Rodriguez and Michigan prior to his hiring, including the "term sheet", which lists the details of his agreement to become Michigan's head coach. Those items could reveal a pattern of intent that shows Rodriguez was negotiating, or had perhaps even accepted, the Michigan job before he met with West Virginia officials concerning the alleged verbal promises that he says the school backed out on.

There will likely be many more gray areas in even these seemingly simple rulings. Will Rodriguez have to turn over any documentation of conversations or emails that exist between his attorneys or agent and Michigan? That could be a loophole that he tries to hide behind. Will West Virginia or Rodriguez be able to produce any witnesses to the meeting in which Rodriguez was allegedly told that he would get more than what was in his contract, or the later meeting in which he alleges that Garrison rescinded the alleged promises? All this is very nebulous, and will certainly result in even more complexity as the case continues.

However, at this point, it looks as if WVU came out on top in the early going. Two significant wins, and only one glancing body blow in return. It's still very early days, however, and that's the most important fact to recognize from this proceeding. Although various news outlets trumpeted the hearing as a major event, it was, in fact, a very minor one – comparable to baseball umpires going over the ground rules of a particular park. The real action – the game – is just now getting underway. And barring a settlement, which isn't anticipated, it won't be a surprise to see it still going on a year from now.

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