Coaches’ Contracts: Overrated?

In my world, there’s a scent of irony floating through that just as I begin a series on coach contracts, we come to find out that not everyone thinks they’re necessary.

Penn State and Joe Paterno have decided after weeks of hand wringing over him having just one year left on his contract that he doesn’t need one. PSU’s position is that his seniority is supposed to speak for itself, a contract is “not necessary or practical,” and not having a contract doesn’t imply a retirement date. Paterno, for his part, says that he doesn’t need a contract, trusts the university to do the right thing, and that if he needed a contract in order to keep his job then he’s in the wrong place.

Whether it speaks for itself or not, his seniority is certainly self-evident.

Across the border in West Virginia, neither Bill Stewart nor Bob Huggins has a contract with WVU. Apparently both have handshake and verbal agreements with AD Ed Pastilong that they won’t leave, and they are only bound by term sheets that outline their pay. Granted, term sheets can be binding legal contracts (and are in this case), but they don’t cover nearly as many legal contingencies as contracts do. They’re just bullet point outlines, after all.

Stewart and Huggins are West Virginia natives and each has known Pastilong for more than 30 years. Perhaps this is a special case in which contracts are not needed. Given Stewart’s coaching history and age, it’s unlikely that a school like a Michigan will come to poach him, and he doesn’t even have an agent. They’re probably fine with him. Huggins is a more difficult case; it’s not so much that he’d leave for greener pastures soon, but his history of misconduct should raise red flags to anyone with a proper risk management policy regardless of personal histories.

West Virginia should know better, given the messy departures of both John Beilein and another West Virginia native, Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s contract clearly states beginning on page 22 the terms of his buyout. The only way he could take another coaching job before August 31, 2008 and not have to pay the buyout is if WVU breached the contract. The agreement has no room for ambiguity there. Yet, thanks to an alleged verbal agreement with Pastilong that the buyout wouldn’t be enforced, the university is now trapped in court and no doubt spending quite a bit on legal fees trying to get the money that Rodriguez is contractually obliged to pay. Rodriguez said the school didn’t fulfill promises it has made to him over the years, but without them being in writing, I doubt he’ll win his case in court.

Rich Rodriguez: willing to fight in court to save Michigan boosters $4 million that they likely are more than willing to pay. Image CC by Flickr user CA2.

The proceedings with Beilein and Rodriguez should be enough evidence for the school that having all agreements be in writing is by far the best way to go. As I said, I don’t anticipate Stewart leaving for another job, but what if T. Boone Pickens throws a mountain of cash at Huggins after the guy who replaces Sean Sutton gets fired? Huggins’ term sheet has a $1 million buyout, but no one knows what handshakes and verbal agreements might be on the side.

The rumblings up at Penn State say that a movement to get Paterno out is building steam. The only thing allowing him to coach as long as he wants at this point is the desire of Penn State not to look bad for pushing a legend out the door. Based on how shameless big time college football powers have become lately, that may not be enough. At least the school hasn’t gone so far as to try to silence critics of Paterno.

In this day and age where legal ninjas roam the countryside, the importance of written contracts should be self-evident. The potential for ugliness is greater at Penn State, but I hope WVU doesn’t make a habit of this, or we’ll probably end up with more never-ending coach litigation sagas, and no one wants that.

A legal ninja (artist’s conception).

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