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U. of Pittsburgh
Big East sues to stop exodus

Miami, Boston College, Atlantic Coast Conference named in complaint

Saturday, June 07, 2003

By Shelly Anderson, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Calling it a last resort in an effort to keep the Big East Conference intact, the University of Pittsburgh and four other football-related members of the conference filed a civil lawsuit yesterday against the University of Miami, Boston College and the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg:
" This is a case that involves broken commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, the misappropriations of conference opportunities and predatory attempts to eliminate competition." (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

... a word from our columnist
Bob Smizik: Big East means business with suit

The 35-page complaint, filed in Connecticut sup-erior court in Hartford by Pitt, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and Connecticut, accuses the defendants of self-serving, secret dealings and collusion. It seeks "hundreds of millions of dollars" in damages and an injunction to keep Miami and Boston College from defecting to the ACC.

The ACC, in hopes of expanding from a nine-team league to a 12-team, two-division superconference, is trying to woo Miami, Boston College and Syracuse, which would gut the football portion of the Big East.

A formal invitation should come Monday morning, when the nine presidents of the ACC schools -- Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia and Wake Forest -- meet by conference call for separate votes on admitting the three Big East schools: Miami, Boston College and Syracuse.

If at least seven of the nine ACC presidents vote yes, invitations will be made.

University of Miami President Donna Shalala has indicated to ACC officials that the Hurricanes will join the ACC upon receiving a formal invitation, said a high-ranking official connected to an ACC school.

Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said the lawsuit was filed because of tactics used by the ACC, Miami and Boston College and the fact the heads of the five plaintiff schools hit a wall when they tried to keep the Big East intact through diplomacy.

"I want to emphasize that this is not a normal case of member withdrawal from an athletic conference," Nordenberg said at a midday news conference at the Petersen Events Center. "This is a case that involves broken commitments, secret dealings, breaches of fiduciary responsibility, the misappropriations of conference opportunities and predatory attempts to eliminate competition."

Pitt, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, Miami, Boston College, Syracuse and Temple are the members of the Big East that vie for the league football title, which brings an automatic berth in the Bowl Championship Series. Temple is slated to be dropped from the league after the 2004 season, with Connecticut taking its place in 2005. Connecticut currently is a member of the Big East in other sports.

Syracuse was not named in the lawsuit because, Nordenberg said, there is no evidence the Orangemen reneged on a pledge to continue membership in the Big East or took part in shady maneuverings with the ACC. Nordenberg said the Big East officials were not invited to be plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, there is documented proof that officials at Miami and Boston College made verbal commitments to the Big East the past several years, but all the while were taking part in "a conspiracy in which [they] have abandoned their contractual and fiduciary obligations to their partner schools in the Big East ... based on their desire to make more money irrespective of the cost to their partners."

If the ACC succeeds in luring the three schools, the lawsuit contends, it will cost the remaining Big East football schools hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue because the conference stands to lose its lucrative television contract and its automatic BCS bid. It's believed Miami, Boston College and Syracuse have been told they will have higher revenues in the ACC.

"They have done this to generate some more revenue from their college athletic programs," West Virginia President David Hardesty said at a news conference in Morgantown. "And in doing so, these universities have ignored the public interest served by the Big East."

The lawsuit also outlines expenditures of "tens of millions of dollars" by the five plaintiff schools on their football programs that were made based on assurances from member schools such as Miami that the Big East would remain intact. They include:

Pitt's construction of the $100 million Petersen Center and its long-term leases at its South Side football training facility and Heinz Field.

Virginia Tech's $37 million expansion of its stadium and the fact the Hokies' entry into the Big East was "accelerated by a full year."

Connecticut's recently completed $90 million football stadium, which was a requirement for entry in the Big East in football.

"We're disappointed that these schools have chosen to take this action," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said in a statement, which added that ACC lawyers were reviewing the lawsuit.

Miami Athletic Director Paul Dee said the Hurricanes "are aware of the allegations and we will prepare to present the university's side of the case."

At Syracuse, university spokesman Kevin Morrow said, "It's unfortunate that institutions that have been friends are now at odds."

Boston College officials had no comment.

Nordenberg said it's doubtful the defendants could buy their way out of the lawsuit with a financial settlement because of the high amount of damages being sought. He hopes something could still be worked out before a trial.

"We ... intend to reach out, to be receptive to continuing conversations outside the formalities of the litigation," he said.

Nordenberg dismissed as speculation reports that Pitt could solve its problems by leaving the Big East to join the Big Ten Conference. He said the Panthers have not explored contingency plans beyond the lawsuit, although he pointed out that Pitt is in a better position to handle a crisis with the Big East than it was five years ago because of the upgrade in facilities and the improved play of the football and men's basketball teams.

"We really have been focusing on preserving and protecting the Big East as our goal," Nordenberg said.

"Certainly we've met a lot of challenges over the course of the last few years. Personally, I thought we'd earned the right to coast for a while, but life didn't treat us that fairly. Instead, we now have another challenge to meet if we're going to do just that -- protecting our programs, sustaining our momentum and continuing to compete at the highest levels and doing that in an honorable, principled way."

Pitt football coach Walt Harris supported Nordenberg's efforts.

"We're trying to preserve the Big East, so whatever we have to do, we want to do," Harris said. "I don't think any of us are talking about our next-best option. I think we're committed entirely and totally to preserving the Big East."

Nordenberg said the plaintiff schools exhausted other avenues for trying to keep the Big East intact.

At a meeting of Big East athletic directors last month in Florida, the football schools in the league offered Miami $9 million to stay, a figure meant to offset a reported financial gain the Hurricanes would see if they move to the ACC.

Nordenberg and chancellors or presidents of the other five plaintiff schools then spent time the past two weeks discussing the issue with the heads of ACC schools and those at Miami, Boston College and Syracuse. Nordenberg traveled to Boston College May 29 and to Syracuse the following day. Hardesty made similar trips. All five heads of the plaintiff schools then met with Miami President Shalala Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

"Those contacts left us, unfortunately, with the clear and unanimous sense that continuing such conversations would not be productive," Nordenberg said. "As a result, we reluctantly decided to seek legal protection."

Hardesty agreed that the need for the lawsuit was unfortunate but necessary.

"We come to this point ... reluctantly, but with great resolve," he said. "This league is an up-and-coming league, and I believe it's worth keeping and maintaining."

The Associated Press and the Miami Herald contributed to this report. Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.

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