MORGANTOWN, W. Va. -- Late last summer, when pressure was mounting on football coach Rich Rodriguez to sign his new contract with West Virginia, he received a telephone call from the state's governor.
"Rich, when are you going to sign your contract?" Joe Manchin III asked Rodriguez, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
"Don't you have more important things to worry about?" Rodriguez asked Manchin, whom the coach then considered a close friend.
"I never thought a football coach would make more money than the governor," Manchin said.
"Well, you only have to win once every four years," Rodriguez joked.
In the end, Rodriguez didn't win when it mattered most. With his team needing to beat 28-point underdog Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale to earn a chance to play for college football's national championship, the Mountaineers lost to the Panthers 13-9. The crushing home defeat sent Rodriguez into an emotional tailspin and magnified the problems he faced at West Virginia.
"That loss wore him out worse than anything I'd ever seen before," said Mike Smith, an auto dealer from Charleston, W. Va., who describes himself as a close friend of Rodriguez. "He'd only lost four games in two years. After that loss, he made a lot of decisions that were out of character. I just think that loss put him in a different state of mind. I don't think there's any question he rushed into some things."
Sixteen days after losing to Pittsburgh, Rodriguez was introduced as the new football coach at the University of Michigan. Immediately, Rodriguez became a pariah in the state he and his family considered home. He walked away from his alma mater only a few months after signing a one-year contract extension that called for him to coach the Mountaineers through the 2013 season.
Worse, Rodriguez left West Virginia before the Mountaineers' season had ended. West Virginia upset Oklahoma 48-28 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2. Interim coach Bill Stewart, who worked as tight ends coach, special-teams coordinator and associate head coach under Rodriguez in 2007, was named the school's new coach the day after he guided the Mountaineers to perhaps the biggest victory in the program's history.
In a state where the Mountaineers are seemingly the only team that matters, Rodriguez's sudden departure was met with boiling resentment. The university sued Rodriguez to collect on a $4 million buyout clause in his contract. An unnamed university official accused the former coach of shredding players' academic files, and Calvin Magee, Rodriguez's offensive coordinator at WVU, claimed he wasn't considered for the Mountaineers' head coaching vacancy because he is black.
Rodriguez's parents, who live a short drive from the West Virginia campus, claim they were harassed by Mountaineers fans after their son left for Michigan. The highway sign declaring Grant Town, W.Va., as Rich Rodriguez's hometown was even removed.
"A strong commitment was made both ways, Rich to us and we to Rich," West Virginia athletic director Ed Pastilong said. "It was felt this would be a long and prosperous relationship. Now, less than a year later, there's a change. It got many fans upset. To add to that, he's an alumnus whose hometown is 20 to 30 miles from campus. All of those things added to the disappointment."
During the past few seasons, when Rodriguez built the Mountaineers into a national championship contender, he implored his players to "hold the rope." Who knew it would be the coach who dropped the knot?
"He told everybody, 'You're stuck with me and I'm not going anywhere,'" Smith said. "Loyalty is a big word in West Virginia. He preached that to his kids. He always told them to 'hold the rope' and he let it go."
Stewart, who still considers Rodriguez a close friend, said that both sides need to settle their differences and look to the future.
"What happened is a guy took a job," Stewart said. "It wasn't a tragic loss of life. It was a passing. It was a life-altering event for some of the players and the people involved. There needs to be closure. He is at Michigan and I'm at West Virginia."
Rodriguez's attorneys offered to pay West Virginia $1.5 million to buy out the final six years of his contract. Tom Flaherty, an attorney representing the university, said "the university has lived up to all its obligations under the contract, and the university expects him to live up to the $4 million that is owed." Even if the much-publicized case never sees a courtroom, both sides have suffered irreparable damage.
"They're acting like a jilted lover in a divorce case," said Marv Robon, one of Rodriguez's Ohio-based attorneys. "They want a pound of flesh. Rich is gone and he's not coming back. He's a native-born Mountaineer and he doesn't want to hurt them."
"Everybody has taken sides and many believe Rich is a traitor," said an influential West Virginia booster who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The endgame is the university is a big loser because the image of the university is tarnished, and that's sad."
Correspondence between Rodriguez's representatives and university officials, obtained by ESPN.com through a freedom of information request, reveals that the former coach had become increasingly frustrated with a financially strapped athletic department with no clear chain of command and fractured interests. A school spokesperson said, however, that the athletic department had a surplus of $2.5 million the last fiscal year. Nonetheless, by the end of his tenure, Rodriguez wasn't even speaking to Pastilong and mostly communicated with university president Mike Garrison and Craig Walker, Garrison's chief of staff.
Rodriguez, through his agent, declined to comment on the circumstances of his departure.
E-mails between the sides also shows that the university had become impatient with Rodriguez. The coach had demanded control of virtually every facet of the West Virginia football program, from scheduling opponents to who watched the Mountaineers practice and who stood on the sideline during games.
In the end, Rodriguez's close friends say, it was easier for him to walk away than to stay and fight. And West Virginia officials didn't do much to try to keep him because they had grown tired of meeting his seemingly endless demands.
"It was the perfect storm for Michigan," Smith said. "Michigan was a little desperate for a coach, and Rich was kind of wavering a little bit from the Pitt loss. Somebody got ahold of him at the right time and everything fell into place for Michigan."
The storm had been brewing at West Virginia for months. After Rodriguez came close to leaving for Alabama after the 2006 season, West Virginia persuaded him to stay with an enhanced contract. Manchin orchestrated the new deal, which was financed mostly by contributions from many of the school's most influential boosters. At the time, Rodriguez was concerned mainly about his assistant coaches' salaries and the need for an improved playing field, locker room and academic center.
According to West Virginia officials, the school met each of Rodriguez's demands. The athletic department spent nearly $3.5 million to build a new academic center at Milan Puskar Center, and nearly $1 million to replace the artificial playing surface at Mountaineer Field. A $4 million renovation of the team's locker room began shortly after the 2007 regular season ended.
The school also increased the salary pool for assistant coaches by $150,000 on July 1. The salary pool would have been increased an additional $50,000 in each subsequent year of his tenure, according to the contract Rodriguez signed with West Virginia on Aug. 24.
"In reality, all commitments were fulfilled by West Virginia," Pastilong said. "In fact, we exceeded what was requested for assistant coaches' salaries. We felt very good about our responsibilities and obligations and were comfortable regarding our focus to the football program."
But Rodriguez wanted more. Near the end of his latest contract negotiations with West Virginia, Rodriguez still had concerns about less tangible facets of the program. In an Aug. 27 e-mail to Garrison and Walker, Rodriguez's financial advisor, Mike Wilcox, wrote that the coach had no issues regarding the amount of his compensation or longevity of his contract. But, he added, Rodriguez "has issues with the operations of the football program, his need for total control for the football program and 'fairness.'"
Specifically, Wilcox said Rodriguez wanted "total control of the sideline ... both pregame and game sideline passes." Additionally, Rodriguez wanted his players to be able to keep their textbooks at the end of each semester and wanted better seating for football recruits at basketball games. Rodriguez wanted the school to waive a $5 admission fee for high school coaches to attend Mountaineers football games and wanted the program's summer football camps to be "run by a proprietorship solely owned by Rich."
More importantly, Rodriguez wanted to control the school's Football Enhancement Fund and 1100 Club, which Rodriguez established to solicit money from boosters to fund the Mountaineers' recruiting efforts. Rodriguez complained West Virginia had used the money donated to the 1100 Club for other purposes. In the e-mail to Garrison and Walker, Wilcox wrote: "Rich asked to look at expenses taken out and was told that they were for 'recruiting and related expenses.' ... It was agreed Rich would have complete control and sign off on all expenditures of these funds."
Rodriguez felt West Virginia needed to modernize its athletic department. He sought to launch his own Web site to generate more money to pay his assistant coaches, a potential enterprise that was met with much resistance from the administration.
Rodriguez also asked the university to cease rebroadcasting its football and basketball games on its own Mountaineer Sports Network (MSN) and sell the rebroadcast rights to regional networks. Because of West Virginia's recent success -- it won or tied for the Big East football championship in four of the past five seasons and played in a lucrative BCS bowl game twice during Rodriguez's seven-year tenure -- the coach and his representatives believed the school might generate millions of dollars by selling its radio and TV rights. Rodriguez also wanted the games rebroadcast regionally for more exposure.
In a Nov. 14 e-mail to Walker, Rodriguez's agent raised concerns about the university not addressing the coach's wishes. In the e-mail, Mike Brown wrote: "We both agree there is millions in revenue not being realized. Those revenues over time will allow WVU to remain competitive for Rich's services. I was hoping those revenue streams would be in place by 2008 and I think you felt the same. ... Why is this important? There is a projected opening at Texas A&M this year and Florida State next year. Rich's name is being mentioned heavily."
In February 2006, then-West Virginia president David Hardesty ordered the Mountaineer Athletic Club's Development Council to conduct an independent review of the athletic department. The council recommended 55 changes to the way the athletic department operated. Among the recommendations, the committee asked whether "it's possible that parts or all of [MSN] could be done less expensively by being outsourced. We spend nearly $2.7 million, for example, on MSN annually."
A school spokesperson said $2 million of the MSN's operating expenses paid portions of the coaches' salaries.
"They've left millions of dollars on the table in their unwillingness to license their broadcast rights," the West Virginia booster said. "It's because of a lack of good business plans. It's just a badly run business. It's an embarrassment to the university."
Pastilong, a former West Virginia football player, has worked nearly two decades as the school's athletics director. Pastilong and Manchin were college roommates at West Virginia.
"People are obviously aligned on one side or the other," one influential West Virginia booster said. "Rich became more and more frustrated with things that he perceived to be problems. Ed and the governor are friends. It transcends the governor's ability to make good decisions. Ed's his friend and he's going to stand behind him."
Pastilong said Manchin's involvement in West Virginia athletics is welcomed.
"We have a very good governor," Pastilong said. "He's very active. He is involved. He is involved to the extent of being helpful. He's involved when he should be and when needed."
But Rodriguez became irritated by Manchin's involvement, according to people close to the former West Virginia coach. Even after Rodriguez's departure, at the Fiesta Bowl, Manchin was on the sideline during the game, slapping players' helmets and shoulder pads as they came off the field. Manchin also was involved in the search for Rodriguez's successor, even personally speaking to potential candidates.
"He's in a power position and he's making the decisions," the West Virginia booster said. "If he had his true calling in life, he probably wanted to be a college or pro football coach. He's getting to do that vicariously because he's the governor and he's important."
Manchin's relationship with WVU president Garrison also has been questioned. Garrison, 38, was a controversial successor to Hardesty, who retired last year. Garrison was a local attorney who earned undergraduate and law degrees from West Virginia, Garrison held several posts at the state capital in Charleston, most notably as chief of staff to former governor Bob Wise. In that position, Garrison was involved in the appointment process of five of the 17 members of the WVU board of governors. The board of governors ultimately chose Garrison over two other more long-standing academics.
"I think Garrison is a guy who wants to do well," the West Virginia booster said. "He is absolutely there at the behest of the governor. He was put there over the objections of the academics. I think at this point he is beholden to the governor and isn't strong enough in his credentials to stand on his own. If Joe Manchin called him and told him changes needed to be made in the athletic department, it would be done by sundown."
Garrison and Manchin declined ESPN's interview requests.
In the end, the only change made was Rodriguez leaving in a cloud of coal dust. After meeting with Michigan athletic director Bill Martin in Toledo, Ohio, on Dec. 14, Rodriguez returned to Morgantown. He met with Pastilong and Garrison in separate meetings the next day. Rodriguez asked if the university would address his concerns, and each man said they told him no.
"We made an extremely strong commitment less than one year earlier," Pastilong said. "It would have been very difficult to go beyond that. We were not in a position following our last contract negotiation to get into a bidding situation. We had made as strong of a commitment as possible."
So West Virginia's once-favorite son left. And his alma mater and home state are still coming to grips with his abrupt departure.
"We all want a good ending to situations of this kind and hopefully that will occur," Pastilong said. "It was a bit of a surprise, and we want to make sure we're established for success in the future."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.