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Lawsuit might be just the beginning

The WAC is also discussing two other possible legal options

By Ferd Lewis

LAST UPDATED: 6:57 a.m. HST, Sep 15, 2010

The Western Athletic Conference's complaint against Fresno State and Nevada is said to be unprecedented in the conference's 48-year history, but could be just the beginning of a series of legal initiatives aimed at renegade members, according to people familiar with the situation.

The WAC announced yesterday it filed a suit Sept. 9 in a Colorado court seeking declaratory relief by forcing the two renegade schools to participate in the conference schedule through the 2011-12 season.

In a separate issue, according to people familiar with conference communications, the six other members have discussed legal action if Fresno State and Nevada do not pay the $5 million departure fee by its Oct. 25 due date. According to the WAC, Fresno State and Nevada were notified on Aug. 26 that they had 60 days in which to make the payment.

The University of Hawaii and other members have been briefed on the possibility of legal action if the deadline is not met.

A person with knowledge of internal WAC talks said further action regarding the breakup but not associated with the date of departure or $5 million buyout issues also has been mentioned.

Commissioner Karl Benson and UH officials declined comment on the possibility of additional legal action. The WAC's Colorado-based law firm did not respond to an e-mail.

The WAC is a corporation, registered in Colorado, in which its eight members are directors.

Conference officials said they believe Thursday's filing in Jefferson County District Court is the first time the conference has taken legal action against sitting members. A suit was drawn up in 1998 following a breakaway by eight members of the then-16 member conference, but the WAC Board of Directors ultimately chose not to follow through.

This time, Benson said the WAC went to court after advising Fresno State and Nevada they were obligated to the conference through the 2011-12 season while the two schools maintained they intended to leave after the 2010-11 season.

Benson said WAC bylaws, in place since 2006, require a notice of intent to leave the conference prior to July 1 the year before departure. Both Fresno State and Nevada made their announcements Aug. 18.

Boise State also is departing but is not named in the complaint because the Broncos made their announcement June 11.

In an Aug. 24 letter to WAC members, including Manoa chancellor Virginia Hinshaw, Nevada president Milton Glick wrote, "This withdrawal is effective June 30, 2011, such that Nevada will play in the Mountain West Conference for the 2011-12 season."

Similarly, Fresno State president John Welty wrote, "It is our desire to withdraw on July 1, 2011."

In a conference call yesterday, WAC commissioner Benson said Fresno State and Nevada have 30 days from the Sept. 9 filing in which to respond.

Benson said the WAC took the action because "we need assurances Fresno State and Nevada will meet their obligations to participate in the WAC (in 2011-12)."

An early withdrawal by the two would, according to the complaint, cause "irreparable damage to the conference and its remaining members in that scheduling will be incomplete and participation and competition for the student-athletes will be adversely affected."

Although the MWC was listed as a defendant, its commissioner, Craig Thompson, said, "Similar to other universities leaving current conferences for new athletic conferences, the departure date for Fresno State and Nevada is an issue that will be determined by the three principals, including the Western Athletic Conference and the two departing institutions."

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