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January 18, 2008
Acrimony Leads Closure in West Virginia Conflict
By RAY GLIER
In the acrimonious aftermath of the Rich Rodriguez era at West Virginia, Bill Stewart, the head coach for about two weeks, is looking for closure, which does not seem to be in reach.
West Virginia University has filed a lawsuit against Rodriguez, there are allegations that he destroyed documents valuable to the program, and a top player has declared for the N.F.L. draft since he left for Michigan on Dec. 17.
“We need to start talking Mountaineer football and Michigan football and let it go,” Stewart said in a telephone interview. “Rich is gone, there is a new regime here. We need to go our separate ways.”
West Virginia officials are willing to let Rodriguez leave peacefully as long as he pays the university $4 million for breaking his contract, which paid him $1.9 million in 2007 and was signed through 2013.
The university filed the lawsuit Dec. 27, claiming Rodriguez is obligated to pay the buyout over the next two years. Rodriguez’s lawyers filed a motion Wednesday to move the suit to federal court. He has until next Wednesday to answer the complaint from West Virginia officials.
The conflict over the buyout is only part of the feud between Rodriguez and West Virginia.
This week, The Charleston Gazette, quoting sources inside the West Virginia athletic department, reported that after Rodriguez returned from Michigan after his introductory news conference, he and a member of his staff were seen shredding documents belonging to the program. The university said it was not sure what documents were shredded and it is investigating.
“The things they are saying are not true,” Rodriguez told The Toledo Blade on Wednesday. “It’s a lie. How can you put out lies and think it’s O.K.? They don’t care what the truth is, they just want to smear Rich Rodriguez.”
Highway signs in Rodriguez’s hometown, Grant Town, W. Va., proclaiming him one of its own, were taken down because officials there feared vandalism. Rodriguez’s family has been harassed and threatened, said his agent, Mike Brown.
What has riled West Virginia supporters was that Rodriguez swore allegiance after being courted by Alabama in 2006.
“When the details come out, you’ll see that I’m committed to West Virginia University for a very, very long time,” Rodriguez said after turning down the Crimson Tide.
Rodriguez’s supporters, however, said West Virginia did not fulfill commitments to Rodriguez to improve the program. In a telephone interview, Brown said Rodriguez simply took a better job. “It seems like people in West Virginia think Rich and his family are supposed to be indebted in servitude to them the rest of their lives,” Brown said.
Rodriguez was not available for comment, according to Michigan officials and Brown.
Three weeks after Rodriguez left, the star running back Steve Slaton said he would skip his senior season and declare for the N.F.L. draft. His father hinted to The Philadelphia Daily News that part of the decision was because Slaton’s carries had decreased.
Stewart was named Rodriguez’s replacement Jan. 3, the morning after West Virginia upset Oklahoma, 48-28, in the Fiesta Bowl. He has hired veteran coaches to replace the six assistants who joined Rodriguez. One new assistant is John Holliday, who was on Urban Meyer’s staff at Florida and is familiar with the spread offense.
“Holliday is huge for West Virginia, because he is one of the best recruiters in college football,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CSTV.
West Virginia was 11-2 this season and ended the season ranked No. 6. Next season’s team will have veterans on offense with the return of quarterback Pat White, the Big East’s offensive player of the year; tailback Noel Devine; and the entire starting line.
Bernie Buttrey, the coach at Parkersburg (W.Va.) High School, said there would not be a division between Rodriguez’s and Stewart’s supporters.
“You accept that this is the way it is in college football, coaches take other jobs,” Buttrey said. “Rich had a lot of West Virginia guys on his staff; Bill is hiring a lot of West Virginia guys for the new staff. I’ve known both of them a long time, and people supported Rich and they will support Bill.”