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Flying Coach

Jan. 28, 2008
Jan. 28, 2008

Table of Contents
Jan. 28, 2008

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
NFL PLAYOFFS
PRO BASKETBALL
HOCKEY
COLLEGE BASKETBALL
PIGEON RACING
Point After
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Flying Coach

At West Virginia, folks won't forgive or forget Rich Rodriguez

TRUE, THE glamour factor is lacking (the principals are a 140-year-old university and a coach with a crew cut), but for sheer messiness this split could make the cover of People. Ex--West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez surely anticipated some blowback from jilted Mountaineers fans when he took the Michigan job on Dec. 16. But with the method and timing of his leave-taking, this native son of the Mountain State guaranteed maximum rancor. Seventeen days before his team faced Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, the coach, who had six years remaining on his contract, dispatched a grad assistant to hand his resignation letter to WVU athletic director Ed Pastilong. The result: a soap opera complete with vandalism, death threats, document shredding and a lawsuit. The only thing this story's missing is a sympathetic character.

This is an article from the Jan. 28, 2008 issue

Rodriguez, who watched on TV as Bill Stewart coached WVU to a Fiesta win, held the moral high ground early on, thanks to Mountaineers partisans whose reaction to his departure called to mind the bunny-boiling antics of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. There was the death threat received by his brother's son, who also had hostile notes taped to his locker at East Fairmont (W.Va.) High. There was the fan who posted directions to his residence on the Web. The coach's mailbox was pulled up and left in his front yard; signs were hung on his fence. Mike Brown, RichRod's agent, says that the coach now hires a house-sitter before he leaves town.

Public opinion shifted away from Rodriguez on Jan. 15, when The Charleston Gazette reported that he'd shredded a small mountain of documents, perhaps even some player personnel files, before leaving. The coach has insisted that the paperwork was "useless to everybody": old game plans, personal correspondence, rough drafts of sonnets he'd composed between two-a-day practices. (O.K., we made that last one up.)

Overlaying this ocean of acrimony is the suit filed against Rodriguez by WVU's board of governors to collect on a $4 million buyout clause in his contract. While not denying that his client will probably end up forking over some of that money, Brown insists the school doesn't deserve the entire sum. RichRod contends that WVU reneged on promises it had made to him. Revelations were forthcoming, Brown assured SI, that would make it clear which party had behaved dishonorably.

When this blows over, both sides will find themselves diminished. It's a bit like those reports last fall that Lance Armstrong, 36, was seen "canoodling" with the 21-year-old Ashley Olsen. You end up feeling embarrassed for both of them.

Prank of the Week

FOR BELEAGUERED Knicks coach Isiah Thomas, the insults just keep coming. Madison Square Garden fans chant for his dismissal, vendors hawk T-shirts demanding his head—and last week the prospect of playing for him put a grown man in a state of emotional distress. Last Thursday in Los Angeles, Phoenix guard Leandro Barbosa received a call in his hotel room telling him to meet G.M. Steve Kerr in the lobby because he had been traded to the Knicks. Near tears, Barbosa rushed downstairs, frantically in search of any front office types. "My heart was hurting," Barbosa said. "This is my team. I went a little crazy." Finally, he came across assistant coach Dan D'Antoni, who assured Barbosa that the call must have been a prank. D'Antoni also imparted one last piece of wisdom: "You've got to use someone else's name when you check into a hotel. If someone told me to come down to the front desk and pick up a million dollars, do you think I'd start running for the elevator?"

Horse Sense

"THERE'S STRONG," as the ads say, "and then there's Army strong." So it's not surprising that Army sergeant Christopher Lavezza is one of the best horse-pickers in the world. While stationed in Afghanistan last spring, Lavezza, 32, an information technology specialist at the Joint Intelligence Operations Center at Camp Eggers in Kabul, found a way to deal with the rigors of his deployment. The native of Hanover, Pa., spent his free time on the Internet playing the ponies back in the U.S. Last spring, with the help of two long shots at Churchill Downs, he placed fourth in a qualifying competition for the National Handicapping Championship, earning a berth in this weekend's finals in Las Vegas. "I worked mostly on night shifts," says Lavezza, who will travel to Vegas from Stuttgart, Germany, where he's stationed with the 52nd Signal Battalion. "It gave me extra downtime." He'll be a long shot himself in Vegas, competing for the $500,000 first prize against 277 other plungers.

PHOTOLARRY E. WRIGHT/THE ANN ARBOR NEWS/AP (RODRIGUEZ)PAPER JAM Rodriguez, who will make $2.5 million a year at Michigan, says his document shredding was innocent.PHOTOJOHN GREEN/CAL SPORT MEDIA (FANS)PHOTOCOURTESY OF VOGT FAMILY (LAVEZZA)PHOTOROSS D. FRANKLIN/AP (BARBOSA)PHOTOMARY ALTAFFER/AP (THOMAS)