Both the National Football League (“NFL”) and the National
Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) have endured their fair share of high
profile coaching defections either from one university to another, university
to professional franchise, or professional franchise to university. Among the high profile coaches who have
abandoned their respective clubs under contract are Nick Saban, formerly of the
Miami Dolphins and currently with the University of Alabama, Bobby Petrino,
head football coach at Arkansas via the Atlanta Falcons, and Rich Rodriguez,
the freshly minted coach at the University of Michigan. The defections by Saban and Petrino received
a fair amount of attention. However, the
Rich Rodriguez situation may be enough to scare other high profile coaches from
jumping ship too soon.
Nick Saban led the LSU Tigers to a BCS National Championship
in 2004. He then left LSU for the NFL to coach the
Miami Dolphins. A mere two years later, he abandoned the NFL
for the University of Alabama to become one of the highest paid collegiate
coaches. While fans in South Florida felt jilted,
Dolphins owner Wayne Huizinga claimed that there were no hard feelings, despite
the coach departing three years prior to the end of his contract.
Bobby Petrino, the former coach of the Atlanta Falcons, was
desperate to get back to coaching in the collegiate ranks. Despite his desire to leave the NFL, Petrino
gave his word to Blank that he would not abandon the Falcons. The next day, Petrino chose to resign so that
not even the owner of the team he coached could stop him from returning to NCAA
football. Shortly after his resignation, Petrino signed
a contract with the University of Arkansas.
Rich Rodriguez grew up in West Virginia, attended West
Virginia University (“WVU”), and was a member of the university’s football
team. Rodriguez achieved great success as a head
coach while at his alma mater, achieving a record of 60-26, including a Bowl
Championship Series victory in the Sugar Bowl over Georgia. When the University of Alabama was searching
for a new coach, Rodriguez’s initial decision to take the job set off a
statewide panic. However, Rodriguez
backtracked and chose to stay in West Virginia at his alma mater. A year after agreeing to an extension at West
Virginia, the University of Michigan recruited Rodriguez to replace Lloyd
Carr. This time, Rodriguez decided to leave his home
Rich Rodriguez’s time at WVU helped elevate the football
program to national prominence and helped invoke a sense of pride in the
residents of the state, which does not maintain a single professional
sports franchise.  Not only was the decision to leave WVU for
Michigan messy because of the state’s attachment to Rodriguez, but because he
was also under contract.
III. Legal Issue
WVU sued Rodriguez for $4 million dollars on the theory that
Rodriguez had breached his contract. Rodriguez maintained that the university
violated a promise during his contract to reduce the $4 million buy-out, among several other provisions. The buy-out required Rodriguez to pay WVU $4
million if he did not honor his contract. Rather than stand trial in West Virginia, a
state that no longer took kindly to Rodriguez for abandoning it, and risk
facing a partial judge, Rodriguez sought to move the case to federal court by invoking
diversity jurisdiction. Rodriguez claimed that he was a resident of
the state of Michigan at the time of the suit, producing Michigan state driver’s
licenses held by him and his wife, along with a lease agreement for a townhouse
in Michigan. WVU countered by stating that Rodriguez and
his family were living in West Virginia at the time of the suit and their
children were attending school in the state.
U.S. District Judge John Bailey sent the case back to Circuit
Court in Monongalia County to continue proceedings. The decision rested on precedent which states
that state agencies are not citizens of a state. WVU was deemed an arm of the state, and
therefore, the action could not have been filed originally in federal court and
thus could not be removed. The Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction
over this case because the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction over
controversies between two or more states and over actions by a State against a
citizen of another State. However, there
is no removal from a state trial court to the Supreme Court. Rodriguez’s case will certainly be held in
state court, and may produce a result that was exactly why diversity
jurisdiction was instituted to prevent – to protect individuals from biased
local courts. Although Rodriguez is not
an out of state litigant, he has spurned his home state school in favor of a
more prestigious school, and might as well be an out-of-state litigant fearing
the wrath of a local court.
While coaches will continue to jump from school to school or
from school to professional franchises, there are few, if any, obstacles
outside of buy-out clauses in coaching contracts to seriously deter their
departure. The issue has drawn the
attention of NCAA President Myles Brand, who described the situation of
coaching departures as “uncomfortable.” While the fan bases in Miami and Atlanta felt
spurned by their coaching departures, both Petrino and Saban arrived in their
new coaching positions relatively unscathed. Rodriguez on the other hand, may
have to pay WVU $4 million dollars. This
could go a long way to discourage similar contract breaches. Not only is the large sum of money at play an
issue, but coaches pondering an in-contract coaching move could be deterred by
the mess that has become West Virginia
University v. Rodriguez. From the
statewide fallout to the ever-increasing legal fees, the pending litigation may
be the greatest deterrent to coaches seeking similar moves in the future.
Steve Wiegberg, NCAA Coaching Carousel gets Dizzying, USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/2007-12-13-Coaching-carousel_N.htm.
shuts down White, Oklahoma in Sugar, Wins Half of National Title, Sports
Illustrated, Jan. 5, 2004, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2004/football/ncaa/specials/bowls/2003/01/04/sugar.bowl/.
Charles Nobles, Saban Leaving the Dolphins for Alabama, N.Y. Times, Jan. 4, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/04/sports/ncaafootball/04saban.html?n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/People/H/Huizenga,%20H.%20Wayne.
Rhoden, supra note 7.