WVU and Big 12 officials have spoken confidently, and at times even invoking a cocksure tone, that WVU will be a member of the league July 1 and play a Big 12 football schedule this fall.
The company line is repeated over and over, even in the face of a legal battle by the Big East to keep the Mountaineers from making a quick exit, and a contract that tilts in favor of the jilted conference.
Combine that with the fact that one of the two venues for the legal fight is Providence, Rhode Island, the home town of the Big East (the other is Morgantown), you would think that WVU and the Big 12 have reason to worry. So, when I sat down with Big 12 Interim Commissioner Chuck Neinas during a visit to Morgantown last week, I asked him the source of his confidence.
"The West Virginia officials… how’s that?" responded Neinas with a defiant tone. "They (WVU) will be with us come July 1, 2012 and we’ll play the football schedule in the Big 12 Conference," Neinas added, leaving no room for any doubt.
WVU President Jim Clements and Athletic Director Oliver Luck have been equally as resolute, which leads me to think there are two possible reasons for their certainty.
First, they actually have good reason to be so firm in their belief. Neinas, Clements and Luck have been stoic about possible progress of a negotiated settlement, but there are hints. "I happen to know a little, but I don’t think it’s proper for me to say," said Neinas.
Perhaps even now a skilled mediator is working with lawyers for both sides toward an agreement that will allow WVU to leave and compensate the Big East for damages. I think, however, there’s another possibility.
Neinas and WVU may be presenting a united front to send a message to the Big East and to the court that no matter what happens, no matter what a judge says, WVU will be playing Oklahoma and Iowa State instead of Louisville and Connecticut this coming season.
Consider this comment from Neinas:
If a Rhode Island court "issued an injunction, (it) must come to West Virginia to have it enforced. That is not going to happen overnight and West Virginia would be in the Big 12 by July 1," Neinas said in our interview.
Or, as one source put it, if you really don’t want to be married or live in the same house, no judge is going to make you stay together.
Then, however, it becomes a question of damages. WVU will have to pay the Big East, and no doubt pay more than the $5 million exit fee. What is the number? $10 million? $15 million? $20 million?
Whatever the amount, WVU’s Athletic Department doesn’t have that kind of cash handy. Its budget has gotten significantly tighter just in the last couple of years. Neinas agreed with the suggestion, however, that WVU could ask the Big 12 to help pay the damages.
"The Big 12 Conference would talk with WVU about it," Neinas said. "It would be an internal matter for our Board of Directors to determine. If West Virginia makes a request, we’ll take it to the board."
WVU and the Big 12 are all in on this one. The school and the league will lose credibility and Neinas, Clements and Luck will look foolish if the school is forced to play in the Big East this season and the Big 12 is stuck with nine teams and scheduling holes.
I suspect WVU will be playing in the Big 12 this coming year, no matter what happens in court. The real question then becomes the price tag.