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Big East sues to try to prevent ACC expansion

Posted: Friday June 06, 2003 9:50 AM
Updated: Friday June 06, 2003 8:01 PM

All the details
Click here to read FindLaw's full (.pdf) version of the Big East schools' lawsuit against Miami. 

NEW YORK (AP) -- Five Big East schools sued Miami, Boston College and the Atlantic Coast Conference on Friday, painting the ACC's expansion plans as a secret conspiracy that would ruin the programs left behind.

The defendants concocted a "deliberate scheme to destroy the Big East and abscond with the collective value of all that has been invested and created" in the conference, according to the lawsuit.

The five schools -- Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Rutgers and Connecticut -- are the football programs that would remain if the other three leave. They seek financial damages and want an injunction to keep Miami and Boston College in the Big East.

Syracuse is part of the potential ACC expansion but was not included in the lawsuit because the plaintiffs said they found no evidence the school made promises to stay in the Big East.

The lawsuit was filed in state Superior Court in Hartford, Conn., not far from the University of Connecticut, which has spent $90 million to upgrade facilities in anticipation of joining the Big East as a football member in 2005.

"We will not sit idly by on the sidelines as these teams leave the Big East," Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland said.

The lawsuit contends the five schools have spent millions on their football programs based on the presumption they were members of a healthy conference.

It alleges Miami and BC -- the "Defecting School Defendants," as they're classified in the lawsuit -- and the ACC were involved in secret expansion talks despite Miami's public commitments to stay in the Big East.

In the lawsuit, Miami president Donna Shalala is quoted on March 6, 2002, reiterating Miami's commitment "in the strongest terms possible, emphatically stating that the University of Miami is in the Big East and has no interest in leaving it for any other conference."

Miami athletic director Paul Dee wouldn't comment on the lawsuit but said the university would defend itself.

"We believe that everything that we've done is appropriate," Dee said.

ACC commissioner John Swofford said conference lawyers were reviewing the lawsuit.

"We're disappointed that these schools have chosen to take this action," he said.

Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said the school would not comment on pending litigation.

ACC presidents have toured the three schools and are expected to decide soon whether to invite them to join, beginning in 2005. If that happens, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he'll immediately file papers seeking a temporary injunction.

Big East bylaws spell out the terms under which teams may leave. Leaving is not illegal, and with a year's notice, the fine for dropping out is $1 million.

That's not the point, according to the lawsuit. It claims that by stripping away three of the Big East's eight football teams, the remaining schools would lose millions of dollars in revenue from the lucrative Bowl Championship Series and from TV deals.

"Big East schools have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in reliance of these now-broken promises," West Virginia president David C. Hardesty said.

The nine-team ACC has promised football power Miami increased revenue from a more lucrative TV deal it believes it could negotiate as a 12-team conference.

The lawsuit transforms the Big East's survival strategy from merely a public-relations barrage into a legal one.

Shortly after the ACC's plans became public last month, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said the defections from the 26-year-old conference would "be the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime."

On Friday, Tranghese merely issued a brief statement, acknowledging the lawsuit, but stating the conference itself was not involved. He let politicians and university presidents do the talking.

"Fraud is not too strong a word to describe what has happened here," Blumenthal said. "This lawsuit reveals a back-room conspiracy, born in secret, founded on greed, and carried out through calculated deceit."

In laying out the argument, the plaintiffs detail the Big East's willingness to stand by BC and Miami "in even the darkest of times." The lawsuit recalls a gambling investigation at BC and Miami's stint on NCAA probation, both in the mid-1990s.

"Nevertheless, during this time, the Big East and every member thereof stood behind these schools," the lawsuit states. "With this support, Miami and BC were able to weather these crises."

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