Lawyers, conference realignment, and the gamble of buyout money

Late this past season, West Virginia University saw the peeling paint on the walls that were crumbling around them. They wanted out of the Big East Conference, and out as fast as possible. The Big 12 was their requested destination, a conference with their own problems of late (see exits of Nebraska a year ago, TA&M and Mizzou this year, and an almost greater exodus of some members to the Pac-12). The problem for WVU was the conference bylaws — the 27-month exit period, an impediment to a fast getaway.

So, the university sued their conference in November to put up a legal challenge to that time requirement. To defend itself, and their bylaws, the conference slapped a countersuit against WVU. The Big East was sending a clear message to WVU, as well as to Pitt and Syracuse who also had stated their intentions of leaving (for the ACC), that the conference had no intention of lifting the time requirement for an exit, regardless of the monetary amount for a buyout.

Competing lawsuits present the opportunity for a very lengthy affair. However, AP is reporting that a judge signed an order Tuesday requiring the litigants to enter into mediation to solve the dueling lawsuits.

Even though the ordered method of dispute resolution is non-binding, this is the type of practical solution that is needed to deal with some of the legal complexities that are bound to surface with conference realignment. The SEC was very careful in their courtship of Texas A&M and Missouri to make sure ahead of time that an approval of acceptance into the SEC would not come with any dangling legal strings, apart from the buyouts that TA&M and Mizzou both agreed to with the Big 12. But the WVU matter is different. The Morgantown academic institution knew that they didn’t have much time in the wake of the impending implosion of the Big East, and the conference was standing on thin ice between relevant existence and implosion into obscurity, or worse. So, WVU gambled by filing a lawsuit in an attempt to force the Big East to accept a buyout, and the conference called WVU’s bluff by slapping the school with the countersuit.

If the mediation settlement is not to the school’s liking — i.e., they can’t afford it — they will likely have to spend more money in legal fees and time in purgatory before they get their wish for a move. And while all of this is happening, Syracuse and Pitt are crouched on bended knee, peeking from the bushes to watch their exit strategies painted on this conference realignment canvass.

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