Federal judge rules Rodriguez lawsuit belongs in West Virginia court

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The lawsuit over a $4 million buyout
clause in the contract of former West Virginia University football
coach Rich Rodriguez will be heard in state court.

WVU is essentially an arm of state government, not an
independent agency, and lawsuits involving state government can be
heard only in the state court system, U.S. District Judge John P.
Bailey said Monday.

He sent the case back to Monongalia County Circuit Court in
Morgantown, where it was filed Dec. 27 after Rodriguez resigned to
take the head coaching job at Michigan.

His abrupt departure ended a successful seven-year run with the
Mountaineers, left the team without a head coach just weeks before
the Fiesta Bowl and touched off a bitter, continuing public feud.

"The university obviously agrees with the decision of the court
and has always felt that the proper place for this action was the
Circuit Court of Monongalia County," said WVU attorney Jeff
Wakefield. "We believe the Circuit Court will be very fair in its
consideration and handling of this matter."

Rodriguez attorney Marv Robon could not immediately be reached
for comment.

Rodriguez unsuccessfully argued that he and wife Rita were
already residents of Michigan on the day the lawsuit was filed,
offering the court a townhouse lease agreement and Michigan driver
licenses as proof. They argued it made the case an interstate
matter that should be heard in federal court.

Bailey, however, said the residency issue was irrelevant because
of the state's clear jurisdiction.

Both statute and case law show the university "can hardly be
said to be autonomous," Bailey wrote.

Among his 12 reasons for declaring WVU the "alter ego" of
state government were: 12 of the 18 members of the Board of
Governors are appointed by the governor; money can be withdrawn
from WVU accounts only via checks issued by the state treasurer;
and all university property is considered the property of the

Bailey also noted that university employees are state employees
with salaries set by law, and that all tuition and fees must be
certified by the state auditor.

His ruling said it's clear the outcome of the case will have an
impact on state funds because any money paid to or held by the
university is considered state money.

Rodriguez claims any buyout funds that are recovered would go to
the school's private fundraising entity, the WVU Foundation,
because that's what happened with a settlement reached in a buyout
dispute with former basketball coach John Beilein.

Beilein, who also went to Michigan, ultimately agreed to pay the
WVU Foundation $1.5 million.

"This court will not consider what may have transpired as part
of an agreed settlement with respect to Coach Beilein," Bailey

"The contract in question, under which the 'buyout' moneys are
sought, is a contract between Coach Rodriguez and the West Virginia
University Board of Governors," he wrote. "That contract,
assuming that it is valid and enforceable (an issue not presently
before this court), requires Coach Rodriguez to pay the money to
the university."

WVU argues it's owed the full $4 million because Rodriguez broke
his contract early.

Rodriguez, however, has repeatedly claimed WVU broke the terms
of his contract first by failing to honor a variety of verbal
promises, including one to reduce or eliminate the buyout.

WVU denies such a promise was made and insists it was working to
accommodate the coach's demands when he quit.

The next step in the case likely will be WVU's response to a
counterclaim Rodriguez filed, arguing the WVU Foundation should be
made a party to the lawsuit.

The foundation, which had been run in part by WVU President Mike
Garrison's chief of staff, Craig Walker, is not legally obligated
to open its books to public scrutiny under ordinary circumstances.

But it funnels money from boosters to WVU athletic programs, and
Rodriguez contends a review of those books is the only way to prove
whether the university has been harmed by his departure.