College Football Coaching Carousel

by Charles Ochab February 24 2008, 01:17

I. Introduction

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.


II.  Background

Nick Saban led the LSU Tigers to a BCS National Championship in 2004.[3] He then left LSU for the NFL to coach the Miami Dolphins.[4] A mere two years later, he abandoned the NFL for the University of Alabama to become one of the highest paid collegiate coaches.[5] 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.[6]

Bobby Petrino, the former coach of the Atlanta Falcons, was desperate to get back to coaching in the collegiate ranks.[7] Despite his desire to leave the NFL, Petrino gave his word to Blank that he would not abandon the Falcons.[8] 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.[9] Shortly after his resignation, Petrino signed a contract with the University of Arkansas.[10]

Rich Rodriguez grew up in West Virginia, attended West Virginia University (“WVU”), and was a member of the university’s football team.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] A year after agreeing to an extension at West Virginia, the University of Michigan recruited Rodriguez to replace Lloyd Carr.[14] This time, Rodriguez decided to leave his home state.

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. [15] 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.[16]

III.  Legal Issue

WVU sued Rodriguez for $4 million dollars on the theory that Rodriguez had breached his contract.[17] Rodriguez maintained that the university violated a promise during his contract to reduce the $4 million buy-out, among several other provisions.[18] The buy-out required Rodriguez to pay WVU $4 million if he did not honor his contract.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[22]

U.S. District Judge John Bailey sent the case back to Circuit Court in Monongalia County to continue proceedings.[23] The decision rested on precedent which states that state agencies are not citizens of a state.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26] 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.

     IV.  Conclusion

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.”[27] 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.



[1] Steve Wiegberg,  NCAA Coaching Carousel gets Dizzying, USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/2007-12-13-Coaching-carousel_N.htm.

[2] Id.

[3] LSU 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/.

[4] 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.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] William C. Rhoden, Petrino’s Departure is Particularly Disturbing, N.Y. Times, Dec. 18, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/18/sports/ncaafootball/18rhoden.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=bobby+petrino&st=nyt&oref=slogin.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Shawn Windsor, SPECIAL REPORT: How and Why Rich Rodriguez Left West Virginia for Michigan, Detroit Free Press, Dec. 23, 2007, http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20071223/SPORTS06/712230543/1048/SPORTS&theme=COACHROD

[12] Rodriguez Leaving West Virginia to Coach Michigan, ESPN, Dec. 17, 2007, http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=3157227.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Kelly Whiteside, West Virginia’s Task: Climb Over Maryland, USA Today, Sept. 9, 2004, http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/bigeast/2004-09-15-wvirginia-md_x.htm.

[16] Shelly Anderson, WVU Signs Rodriguez to Three Year Extension, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jun. 25, 2006, http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06176/701090-144.stm.

[17] Rodriguez Defends Michigan Residency to Try to Keep Lawsuit in Federal Court, ESPN, Feb. 5, 2008, http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=3231435.

[18] Id.

[19] Joe Schad, Source: Attorneys to contest ex-coach having to pay $4M to WVU, ESPN, Dec. 18, 2007, http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=3159677.

 [20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Howard M. Wasserman, Why WVU v. Rodriguez Was Remanded Back to State Court, West Virginia University v. Richard Rodriguez: Legal Perspective, Feb. 19, 2008, http://richrodriguezlaw.blogspot.com/2008/02/why-wvu-v-rodriguez-was-remanded-to.html.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Rhoden, supra note 7.

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