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Lawsuit against Big East likely to benefit Pitt

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 7:52 p.m.

Whether Pitt wins its lawsuit against the Big East, the school likely will achieve the desired result, an early departure for the Atlantic Coast Conference, three nationally recognized sports attorneys said Monday.

The school filed a lawsuit Friday in Allegheny County Court against the Big East Conference seeking to leave the conference at the end of the 2012-13 academic year. Big East rules state Pitt must wait 27 months from the September 2011 announcement of an agreement to join the ACC.

“A number of things have resulted in a vastly different landscape for the Big East over the past 18 months that could further support teams departing,” said Thomas F. Holt Jr. of Boston, a partner with the Pittsburgh-based law firm of K&L Gates, who led West Virginia's effort to leave the Big East. “Pitt may very well have a good case in support of exiting the conference early,” Holt said.

One of the factors is the early exit of West Virginia to the Big 12. The Mountaineers will leave the Big East after the 2012 academic year to join the Big 12. They also filed suit against the Big East, but came to a $20 million agreement with the conference to avoid waiting 27 months.

Pitt says the Big East relinquished the waiting period by not holding West Virginia and TCU to the same standard when they announced last year they were leaving.

“I think Pitt has a point,” said Chris Fusco, managing partner of Callahan and Fusco LLC in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and a legal analyst for the MSG Network.

Fusco said leaving early will come at a price for Pitt.

“How bad does Pitt want to go?” Fusco said, adding that the cost could be between $10-$15 million, or as much as three times the Big East's current exit fee of $5 million.

Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at the University of Vermont, said the case probably will not go to trial and be settled out of court in the next several months.

“They will be arguing over how much money Pitt has to pay,” McCann said. “This is not about emotional damages. They need to come up with a number both sides can live with.”

McCann said the lawsuit gives Pitt leverage in negotiating an early exit. But he doubts either side wants to go to trial.

“You never know (how a trial will turn out),” he said. “And legal fees can become very considerable and, certainly, if there is a trial it means there is an appeal and the situation gets prolonged. Usually, neither party wants that.”

“I don't think this is an outlandish lawsuit,” McCann said. “It is not automatically dismissed. There is an outline of a valid, legal claim, but I don't know if it's an outline that would hold up in a court hearing.”

Proving the conference was at fault, however, will be difficult, McCann said.

“It is hard to show that the Big East acted irresponsibly in the West Virginia and TCU situations,” he said. “The Big East could show it did the best it could, given the difficult deck of cards it was dealing with.”

But McCann added that the Big East would have certain disadvantages if the trial occurred in Allegheny County.

“Local courts sometimes sympathize with parties that are from there,” he said. “Pitt knows that. The Big East knows that.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997.

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