MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After weeks of contention and confoundment, the fan fatigue surrounding WVU’s third-tier rights saga is comparable to a 330-pound noseguard chugging 80 yards with a fumble recovery.
The big guy’s wheezing and wobbling toward pay dirt and you wonder if he’ll ever reach it. Likewise, WVU senses a $100-million payday on its horizon, only to have the last few yards become the longest.
Then again, even the first few yards found WVU athletics director Oliver Luck growing impatient. So suggests his email from June 20, 2012, a mere nine days after the request for proposal was publicly released: “This bureaucracy is killing us.”
Luck sent that frustrated sentence to Drew Payne, whom we must trustingly surmise was functioning that day as chairman of the WVU Board of Governors and not as a board member for West Virginia Media, the company that six months later became a vital part of IMG College’s bid-winning package.
How both gentlemen ignored such a glaring conflict of interest is unfathomable, and thus became one of the problems highlighted by state attorney general Patrick Morrisey on Monday when he recommended WVU begin the bidding anew. By now, Morrisey’s assertions of “significant errors” and “sloppiness” have become lead-paragraph staples of all who reported on WVU’s failings. Not a banner moment for the athletic department, or the university’s leadership, for that matter.
Make no mistake: Black Monday was not the creation of a pestering John Raese, but the result of WVU allowing the process to be painted with the colors of cronyism.
The only thing that saved this from becoming an even larger stain was the inability of Morrisey’s office to find hard evidence that Luck and Payne conspired to”pre-cook the bid” toward IMG. Instead, we’re left with circumstantial correspondences in which Luck shared multiple versions of the RFP with Payne before their public release. And later, during the evaluation process, Luck shared more updates with Payne, who subsequently told news outlets WVU stood to make an additional $5 million per year with IMG’s proposal.
During the attorney general’s subsequent review, Payne claimed he merely estimated that amount because Luck never actually shared financial details of the IMG bid. Morrisey chalked up Payne’s media claims as “hyperbole.”
Luck admitted Monday to improper communications with Payne, though he maintained their dialogue “did not impact the evaluation or selection process.” He cannot say the same about his curious decision to double the size of WVU’s three-member evaluation panel as bids were being analyzed.
Originally, Luck was joined on the committee only by Mike Parsons, deputy director of athletics, and Mike Szul, associate athletic director of business operations. But on Oct. 12, after scoring of the bids had begun, Luck added three new members to the group. He apparently did so without mentioning the additions to Parsons and Szul, whose roles took a diminished turn on Dec. 3. That’s the day an email was sent to the six committee members seeking approvals of the IMG bid, and though Parson and Szul did not respond with their votes, WVU notified IMG of its approval anyway later in the day. Morrisey cited the late-changing committee as a maneuver that clearly could have impacted the final bid-winner.
Looking ahead now to the fast-tracked rebid process, will Luck’s evaluation committee feature some, all or none of the same faces? And will he still be allowed to lead the selection panel after the wrist-slapping handed down by the AG? With Payne advised to recuse himself, should Luck take a sideline seat also?
The contingent of Mountaineers fans focused primarily on touchdowns and tackles are no doubt weary of this tier-3 issue and its discussion of FOIAs, RFPs and bureaucratic protocols. But fans also should expect their athletics director to handle the bidding of such a sizable contact earnestly and appropriately.
On Monday, the attorney general gave Luck credit for only one out of two.
DISCLOSURE: John Raese is the owner of West Virginia Radio Corp., which owns MetroNews.