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Published: Wednesday, 12/19/2007

WVU donors fuming about losing coach to Michigan, blame administrators

BY CHUCK FINDER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The wealthy donors primarily responsible for keeping Rich Rodriguez as head football coach at West Virginia University 53 weeks ago are angry and frustrated over his departure this week for the University of Michigan.

Their ire isn't directed at Mr. Rodriguez.

It's aimed at WVU administrators.

"I tell you what, I've never seen anything mishandled as much as this was," Bob Reynolds, former chief operating officer of Fidelity Investments, said Monday. "Here's a university that made a $200,000 decision - it probably could've cost less than that [to keep Mr. Rodriguez] - and it's going to cost them millions" in booster support, potential bowl money, and revenue from football success.

"I've had calls from at least six major contributors to the program, and they're all done [donating] because they know the Mickey Mouse things that have gone on there," Mr. Reynolds continued. "I've been in business 36 years, and it's the worst business decision I've ever seen. I've been the [chief operating officer] of a 45,000-person company. When somebody's producing, you ask, 'What can I do for you to make your life better?' Not 'What can I do to make your life more miserable?' They have no idea how big this is. It's frightening."

Mr. Reynolds declined to discuss it, but one source said he informed university officials yesterday that he planned to withdraw $12 million in donations he pledged to the school.

Earl G. "Ken" Kendrick, Jr., a part owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and benefactor to the WVU College of Business and Economics and other colleges in his home state, said: "I'm severely disappointed in leadership. I'm discouraged by the decision-making and lack of judgment. And the lack of respect for key employees - because this isn't just about Rich, he's just the most high-profile one. It's a sad story. It's compelling to me as somebody who's given emotional and financial support to the university. And it makes it questionable to me as I go forward."

Mr. Rodriguez, both at the top of his program's prestige and other colleges' candidate lists, made what he considered relatively simple requests. However, his employers considered them "gun-to-the-head" demands because he already had the Michigan offer, said one source close to the administration.

All agree that the details separating the two sides had nothing to do with the coach getting richer.

In separate meetings with Athletic Director Ed Pastilong, Chief of Staff Craig Walker, and finally late Saturday night with newly installed President Mike Garrison, he asked the university to do the following:

•Allow at least an additional $100,000 in bonus money for his assistants.

•Allow scholarship players to retain possession of textbooks at the end of each term, which meant they could have sold them, as apparently happens at other programs.

•Waive a $5 ticket fee for each high-school football coach attending Mountaineer home games, a fee that generates an estimated $5,000 for the university each season.

•Hire seven graduate assistants and a new recruiting coordinator, to ease the duties performed by secondary coach Tony Gibson.

"You could do them in 15 minutes," Mr. Reynolds said of the wish list.

Those supporters, who pledged millions last December for the six-year, $1.9 million-per-year contract that helped to keep Mr. Rodriguez from accepting the University of Alabama coaching position, offered to absorb the additional costs. Their offer was denied.

"It is frustrating to me that when push came to shove, we weren't included in a possible solution," said Wheeling, W.Va., lawyer Dean Hartley, who last year donated toward VIP seating added to Mountaineer Field. "We were not asked to do anything that would bridge the divide that had developed obviously between the administration and Rich. Over the weekend, I've just been bitter over the way it was handled, especially knowing that it wasn't about Rich getting a raise."

"[Mr. Rodriguez] was flabbergasted, because this did not have to happen," said Mr. Reynolds, a Boston-area resident who also donated toward the new academic center that was part of the coach's deal last December. "It just became political, and he didn't think he was supported. And I don't blame him."

Some of the items discussed were part of the contract extension signed Aug. 24, more than eight months after the details were first hammered out last December. Mr. Rodriguez's representatives maintain that university administrators agreed to other requests that haven't been met, though they decline to publicly specify them. In short, it means Mr. Rodriguez might contest the $4 million he owes WVU to buy out his contract, by claiming the university acted in bad faith or fraudulently.

The search for a new coach to replace Mr. Rodriguez, a Grant Town, W.Va., native who went 60-26 and to five bowls in seven seasons, began yesterday.

The West Virginia boosters have become close to Mr. Rodriguez and acknowledged that he grew depressed - one described it as despairing - over the 13-9 loss to Pitt that cost the Mountaineers a chance to play in the national championship game.

Mr. Hartley said he found it "amazing" that in the last year, WVU lost its basketball coach, John Beilein, to Michigan; the head of the Mountaineer Athletic Club, Whit Babcock, who was instrumental in last December's rally that kept Mr. Rodriguez, to Missouri; the swimming coach, Sergio Lopez, after winning the Big East title, to a Jacksonville, Fla., high school swimming program; and women's soccer coach, Nikki Izzo-Brown.

One college where she reportedly interviewed? The same place where Mr. Beilein and Mr. Rodriguez work.

"Maybe we should be a farm system," Mr. Hartley added, "until our coaches get good enough that they can coach at Michigan."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Chuck Finder is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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