Mountaineers of the future sign letters of intent Wednesday. At least on the surface, that seems to guarantee no West Virginia football headlines about lawsuits and buyouts and a certain ex-coach and controversy.
To be sure, it has been an almost daily dish the past few weeks, if not the past month, in this messy coach-university divorce. And it will become clear this week if the dispute between former coach Rich Rodriguez and West Virginia University has any impact on which high school football recruits commit to play football in Morgantown, W.Va.
"It's like, man, who's going to throw the next dart?" said ESPN college football commentator and former player Ed Cunningham, who lives, of all places, near Hollywood and considers these melodramatic Mountaineers a far more riveting soap opera than anything Britney Spears could drum up. "Neither side is getting a benefit from this in public opinion. That's the thing to me, it's negatively impacting both sides.
"[But] this is entirely too juicy not to pay attention. There's espionage with quote-unquote shredded documents. There's a possible NCAA infraction [and] calling Michigan recruits on a West Virginia cell phone. There apparently was a side [verbal] agreement. There's an accusation of racism. There are so many huge plot points to this thing. It's kind of a tragic comedy."
In the short term, the dispute should have no adverse effect on new West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart's first recruiting class.
"We haven't seen any backlash," said Scout Inc.'s Tom Luginbill. "I got to be honest with you, when Rich Rodriguez left, West Virginia wasn't doing a whole lot at the time" on the national recruiting scale. He referred to Parkersburg (W.Va.) High all-star lineman Josh Jenkins retracting his verbal commitment, though Stewart and the new staff redoubled their efforts to recruit him.
"Aside from that," Luginbill added, "I think this class is in a holding pattern."
And that seems to be relatively standard operating procedure for the Mountaineers in years past, if not decades past. They recruit a specific kind of athletes, a specific kind of players, with only the occasional nationally celebrated recruit such as Jason Gwaltney three years ago or Noel Devine last spring.
"They're one of the true exceptions to the rules," SuperPrep publisher Allen Wallace said. "I always hate when people say, 'How does West Virginia do so well when their class is ranked in the 30s?' Sometimes even in the 50s. Recruiting for rankings and recruiting for your needs are two different things sometimes.
"I don't think the controversy has affected West Virginia's recruiting," Wallace added.
"There has been a lot of publicity about the rancor between West Virginia and Rich Rodriguez, but I sincerely doubt any recruit would hold that against either party. That's pretty much beyond the youngsters, making any negative decision or conclusions about West Virginia. They would certainly forgive the coach, 'cause coaches go wherever they can make more money. But I think the loss of Rich Rodriguez has hurt West Virginia a lot. You lose a coach like that, you're going to feel the effects."
Even the Pope of College Football agrees on that much. Lest anyone accuse Beano Cook of leaning toward his alma mater Pitt, he stressed that he maintains an objective opinion of this ex-Mountaineer coach.
"Rodriguez, whether you like him or not, was a heck of a coach there," Cook said. "I think what's going to hurt them is that, losing Rodriguez."
What of the long term?
What of the perception about the post-Rodriguez Mountaineers program beyond state lines, coast to coast?
Speaking from the West Coast, Cunningham said folks are looking toward West Virginia with bewilderment, bemusement, amazement.
"As you get older, you realize throwing stones ... what's the purpose?" Cunningham asked. "Do you think any of this does any good for you? That's the part I don't get: It's coming from the people involved" rather than angry fans.
"And the guy sitting there holding the keys, you've got to feel sorry for him. Bill Stewart had nothing to do with this. It may hurt them. It really might. I just don't see how it can't [affect the program financially or in recruiting]. It has become such a big story. And it's such a shame.
"If you're Bill Stewart, maybe you can turn it around and turn it into a lesson for your kids: 'This is how bad adults can act. People can become petty and selfish, and let's not do that.'"
Yet the stories keep on coming, as with the response filed Friday by Rodriguez's legal team in federal court in Clarksburg, W.Va., stating its side of the lawsuit originally brought by the university two days after Christmas, when papers were served to Rodriguez at his Morgantown-area home. The university claims Rodriguez breached his contract and owes it a $4 million buyout; Rodriguez says it is the university which breached the contract when it didn't come through with verbal and written promises.
It was an environment for the "perfect storm," to invoke a term coined by a disaffected donor, Ken Kendrick, criticized by fans for his public stand for Rodriguez and against athletic-department leaders.
For one thing, West Virginia is a small state, numbering some 1.8 million residents, with a small chip on its shoulder. It contains an atmosphere charged by resentment from a native son's exit and anger from a Dec. 1 loss to rival Pitt costing the state's beloved Mountaineers a national-championship chance. And it was ignited by a fanatic fan base that flamed message boards, sent e-mails and called talk radio with comments loaded with both vitriol and unsubstantiated accusations more incendiary than any Morgantown couch.
Throw in an ongoing legal dispute with sometimes salacious details -- including allegations of vandalism and harassment of ex-coaches' children -- and people far beyond the state take notice.
That, Cunningham said, is the problem:
"To do it publicly, that's where I think mistakes have been made. ... It's hard to sit back and say who's to blame for this. I think it's both sides. If you're going to go to court, go to court. Just stop."
Chuck Finder can be reached at [email protected]