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Published: Wednesday, 7/2/2008

WVU, Michigan coach remain at odds

Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez . Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez .

The wife of University of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez was supposed to give her deposition yesterday in the $4 million lawsuit against him, but it never happened.

Rita Rodriguez was to be deposed in Toledo by attorneys representing West Virginia University - her husband's former employer who is suing him over a buyout clause in his contract - but her testimony was postponed and no new date has been finalized.

"There's no rush," said Marvin Robon, a Maumee attorney who is representing Rodriguez in the matter.

Robon said discovery in this case doesn't have to be completed until September.

According to an attorney representing West Virginia, Rita Rodriguez's deposition was postponed yesterday because a lawyer representing her husband in Morgantown, W.Va., could not be present for the proceedings.

Robon said her deposition may be rescheduled for July 16 in Morgantown, but attorneys for West Virginia have not yet agreed to that date.

Actually, attorneys on both sides haven't agreed on much of anything since West Virginia filed suit against Rodriguez in December, about two weeks after he left to become the Wolverines' new coach.

Lawyers have haggled over the locations of depositions, questioning during those testimonies, and legalese that produces glazed eyes and yawns from anyone in the room who's not an attorney.

But the crux of the issue is this: West Virginia feels it is owed the full $4 million from Rodriguez for breaking his contract with the Mountaineers to coach at UM. Rodriguez believes he signed a contract with West Virginia in August under false pretenses that the university would honor certain commitments to improve the football program, and that West Virginia would reduce or remove the contract's $4 million buyout clause.

And how are those arguments going?

"Nothing has developed during this period of discovery, which includes the depositions given thus far, that in any way alters our strong position that West Virginia is entitled to $4 million from Mr. Rodriguez," said Jeff Wakefield, an attorney representing the university.

A judge in the case ordered the two sides to go to mediation by Aug. 1. It doesn't sound like that's going to work either.

"If they're not going to come off that $4 million figure, there's no sense in mediation," said Robon, who conveyed a similar message to West Virginia's legal team in a letter. Both sides confirmed the university's response to this message was: "Our position will be set forth in mediation with a mediator."

Then there's the game within the game, or issues that have arisen between the two sides as this suit has dragged on.

West Virginia has hired two outside law firms for representation. Robon questions why the West Virginia attorney general is not representing the university.

In an e-mail response to The Blade, Alex Macia, vice president for legal affairs at the university, said outside counsel was sought for its "unique legal experiences, insights, and skill."

"Also, given the [u]niversity's desire to have this dispute addressed expeditiously, we believe the two firms provided us with the capacity and the flexibility to do so," Macia said.

Macia said the rate West Virginia is being charged are from $175 to $245 per hour, depending on "the experience level of the attorney."

Robon said between four and six lawyers for the university were present at each deposition.

Included on West Virginia's legal team is Fitzsimmons Law Offices, which represented former Mountaineers and current UM basketball coach John Beilein in his fight against West Virginia over a buyout clause.

Beilein left the university more than a year ago, and although his contract at the time called for a buyout of $2.5 million, he contested that amount, and the parties eventually agreed on a figure of $1.5 million.

Another dispute arose over the questioning of outgoing West Virginia president Mike Garrison during his June 12 deposition - the transcript of which was released Monday.

Garrison gave his deposition just six days after he announced he was stepping down over backlash after his administration was found to have improperly awarded a master's of business administration degree to Heather Bresch, daughter of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, and chief operating officer of Mylan Inc., overseen by the Mountaineers' largest athletic donor, Mylan Puskar.

Robon said he devoted an entire line of questioning toward Garrison about the Bresch controversy to poke at his credibility and to show that the governor "is controlling every bit and piece in this case."

Wakefield, a West Virginia attorney, said: "I found that a large number of questions were really irrelevant to whether Mr. Rodriguez owes $4 million under his contract with West Virginia but we allowed Mike to answer them because we have nothing to hide."

Garrison claimed in his deposition he "had discussions with Mr. Rodriguez about options or alternatives to liquidated-damages clauses" in future contracts, but did not pledge to reduce or remove the $4 million buyout clause in the contract Rodriguez signed in August.

Rodriguez, who was deposed in April, claimed Manchin and three members of the university's board of governors pressured him into signing his contract in August.

Information from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was used in this report.

Contact Joe Vardon at: jvardon@theblade.com or 419-410-5055.

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