MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — This is a strange conversation to be having, sort of like talking to your friends about who you’d love to marry if, you know, things don’t work out with your spouse. That’s because West Virginia is married to a football coach and it and Dana Holgorsen have had some happy times together and might be destined for many more.
There was that 10-win season and 10-touchdown Orange Bowl, followed promptly by a top-five ranking five games into the following season. There’s also a roster in place now that’s finally situated the way the head coach first envisioned three years ago.
But there have also been six wins in the 20 games since that top-five ranking and there was that statement from athletic director Oliver Luck in December that supported Holgorsen, but also made clear Holgorsen has to help himself this fall.
Then on Wednesday, there was a wholly unexpected development that brought us to this point. We learned Rich Rodriguez is up for a contract extension at the University of Arizona, where he’s won 16 games in two seasons. That extension will feature an ordinary buyout that becomes extraordinary if Rodriguez leaves the Wildcats to return to the Mountaineers.
Specifically, it says Rodriguez owes Arizona $2 million if he leaves for WVU before Jan. 15, 2015 and $1 million if he goes anywhere else before that date. If he leaves for WVU somewhere between Jan. 16, 2015 and Jan. 15, 2016, he pays Arizona $1 million. He’d owe half that if he left for any other school during that time.
It’s interesting, if not easy to explain. Arizona knows the score. It’s aware a bond (still?) exists (again?) between WVU and Rodriguez. It believes Holgorsen is, at the minimum, in a position to keep or lose his job, especially this season. It trusts that a nominal fee won’t keep the Mountaineers from dialing the 520 to find its next coach. So credit Arizona for protecting what it invested in Rodriguez when it pulled him out of the broadcast booth 30 months ago.
There are some questions that tend to lead the conversation, questions Arizona won’t address before the state’s board of regents votes to approve the deal next week. What prompted the Wildcats to include that clause? Do they know something others don’t? Are they aware it’s not “University of West Virginia,” as the buyout states? And is that buyout legal?
That one could be very important. In short, contracts aren’t supposed to be written a way that penalizes a party for or discourages a party from breaching the contract. Is doubling the buyout for picking WVU a punishment? Is it a punitive damage, which contracts can’t have?
Suppose that becomes part of a legal case — and don’t pretend it won’t be if this ever happens … we’ve been down this road how many times? All Team Rodriguez has to do is point out Arizona wants one fee for 123 FBS schools and a fee twice as large for another. That could become contentious.
Or not. There’s a way around that debate, a way to write a contract to designate the buyout as a permissible liquidated damage and not a punitive one. Don’t be surprised if next week the official version of the contract reads, “The parties mutually agree that this sum constitutes liquidated damages and that the sum is reasonable.”
That’s the exact wording from the buyout clause in Doc Holliday’s contract as Marshall’s coach, and it insists he pay Marshall $3 million if he leaves the Thundering Herd for the Mountaineers. WVU is in what has to be extremely elite company as a school that’s mentioned in buyouts for multiple head coaches.
It’s that important to Marshall because the Thundering Herd didn’t want Holliday auditioning for the WVU job. It’s important to Arizona because time has passed and Rodriguez is no longer poisonous to important people at the university. The turnover in the administration and the athletic department has thinned out what you might call enemies.
And as much attention as we’re giving to Arizona here, let’s not lose sight of what’s happening at Louisville. The Cardinals hired Bobby Petrino in January to be their football coach. Petrino was once a winner there before trying so hard to leave and eventually escaping to coach the Atlanta Falcons. Then he quit in the middle of a season there, went to Arkansas and crashed a motorcycle to bust open a scandal that featured lying to his boss and an affair with a football department employee.
Rodriguez’s misdeeds read like parking tickets compared to that.
The inclination is to acknowledge the obvious, to see Rodriguez has been through a lot in the 61/2 years since he split, to leave the past in the past, to make up and move on, but that’s entirely up to you. Far be it from me, a person whose career is based on neutrality, to tell you how to feel. So instead, the aim here is to present a hypothetical. Suppose Holgorsen wins big and retires or goes to the NFL or flames out and resigns. Whatever, this is pretend. And suppose Rodriguez wants to come home.
Is bringing Rodriguez back a good idea? Does it seem beneath Luck, who’s been bold in his many hirings? Does WVU want a coach who is one game below .500 and winning 33 percent of his conference games since he left? Is the zone read the right move in the Big 12? Can the Mountaineers move forward by looking back?
These are just questions, difficult ones without easy answers, but this was always going to be a strange conversation.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.