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Legal headaches could just be starting at Northwestern, WVU with Fitzgerald, Huggins, experts say

Northwestern head football coach Pat Fitzgerald directs the team before an NCAA college football game against Miami (Ohio) Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022, in Evanston, Ill.

The legal headaches could only be starting for Pat Fitzgerald and Bob Huggins — and their schools.

Fitzgerald was fired this week as Northwestern’s football coach following hazing allegations —- but after the school had first announced a two-week suspension. West Virginia said Huggins had resigned after the Hall of Fame basketball coach’s arrest last month on a drunken-driving charge — but he now says he made no such decision.

Attorneys are looking to sort it all out, a process that requires a precise review of their contracts, but industry observers are stunned by the awkward-at-best handling of two high-profile contracts worth millions of dollars. If the cases wind up in court, it would be in everyone’s best interest to seek a quick resolution, said Marty Greenberg, a Milwaukee attorney specializing in coaches’ contracts and terminations.

“A lot of these things end up settled because no one wants to hang their dirty laundry out,” Greenberg said.

Northwestern originally suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks without pay July 7, saying a law firm’s investigation did not find sufficient evidence that the coaching staff knew about ongoing hazing. On Monday, following the publication of stories alleging not only hazing but racism in the football program by the Daily Northwestern student newspaper, the school changed its stance and fired Fitzgerald. President Michael Schil said the hazing was “widespread” and not a secret within the program.

Northwestern’s assistant coaches and support staff are being retained.

A lawyer for Fitzgerald told ESPN that the school breached an oral agreement.

“Without a doubt the Northwestern one is most puzzling for the fact that the university told him he was getting a two-week suspension,” said Andrew Rhoden, a Dallas lawyer who has represented college coaches. “For them to reverse the decision is actually the most puzzling thing I’ve heard of.”

Fitzgerald signed a 10-year contract in 2021 and he reportedly had more than $40 million coming though the life of the deal.

The Fitzgerald situation is “kind of a mess because nobody outside of there really even knows what all of the allegations are,” said Bill Robers, who teaches sports law at the University of Colorado and has represented sports entities, athletes and coaches in contract negotiations.

If Fitzgerald’s case is messy, Huggins’ predicament is downright bizarre.

West Virginia announced the day after Huggins’ June 16 arrest that he had resigned, based in part on a text message sent from the cell phone of Huggins’ wife sent to a deputy athletic director. A week later, an interim replacement was named for the 2023-24 season.

It wasn’t until July 8 that Huggins released a statement saying he never officially stepped down and wants to keep his job.

“It’s very odd, obviously, to come back and say ‘yeah, uh, nevermind,'” Robers said.

West Virginia is sticking with its stance that Huggins resigned, even though the coach accused the university of issuing a “false statement” sent in his name that he didn’t write or review.

Add to that Huggins’ use of a homophobic slur and denigration of Catholics during a radio interview in May. After that incident, Huggins was suspended for three games, his salary of $4.15 million was cut by $1 million and his contract was reduced to a year-by-year review.

Huggins is facing a DUI charge. Under the contract he signed in 2021, the university could fire him for cause for conduct resulting in criminal charges, regardless of a conviction.

University presidents and governing boards have the last say in contract decisions that could get dragged into an ugly legal battle. That’s why they typically turn to their attorneys for guidance. But general counsels often have other daily duties, too.

Rhoden suggested every Power Five conference school should dedicate part of its general counsel office to sports, especially with the recent emergence of name, image and likeness compensation for athletes.

“It’s no longer possible to just rely on your general counsel,” Rhoden said. “What we’re going to start seeing, especially with this NIL stuff and these investigations, is that it’s too much for that individual to try to take on.”

The experts aren’t sure whether coach firings, especially “for cause” misconduct or other serious violations, have become more challenging. But as coaching salaries have ballooned over the past few decades, their contracts now include layers of provisions concerning duties and responsibilities, rules enforcement, moral standards and upholding a school’s reputation, among other things.

“The contracts when I started out were fairly simple,” Greenberg said. “This has become a most sophisticated area of sports contracts. It’s not for the novice or for the normal lawyer. You have to have experience and understand where the problems are.”

Ty Thomas, who leads a sports industry team at the Holland & Knight firm in Washington, said schools have to be careful because “terminating a coach ‘for cause’ may chill your ability to recruit the next coach. For any institution, anytime you’re doing a ’cause’ termination, you’re making something that’s a pretty strong statement.”

Other coaching splits have ended up in court over NCAA and buyout issues, including former UConn basketball coach Kevin Ollie and ex-Kansas football coach David Beaty.

Tennessee cited NCAA rules issues in firing football coach Jeremy Pruitt in 2021 and negating his $12.6 million buyout. Last year, the NCAA notified Tennessee of 18 major rules violations under Pruitt.

Art Briles received a $15 million settlement from Baylor after the university fired him in 2016 following allegations that he and his football staff took no action against players accused of sexual assault.

West Virginia has a history of messy coaching exits, including buyout issues after basketball coach John Beilein and football coach Rich Rodriguez both left for Michigan in 2007.

Rhoden, the Dallas attorney, earned a master’s degree from West Virginia and served as a defensive quality control specialist on Rodriguez’s staff. He said Huggins’ situation puts the school on “a slippery slope.”

“Many coaches are going to be kind of leery about coming to West Virginia if they don’t do this situation right,” he said.

Associated Press

Associated Press

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