MANHATTAN — The ongoing lawsuit between Kansas State and former football coach Ron Prince moves back inside a Riley County courtroom Friday. Lawyers from both sides will argue for immediate judgment.
But barring Judge David Stutzman granting it to either side, a trial date will be set and it will be the next step in what's already a two-year-old matter.
K-State lawyers are trying to invalidate a "secret" agreement that would pay Prince $3.2 million in deferred compensation on top of the $1.2 million buyout he received for being fired in November 2008. Prince's lawyers hope to enforce the agreement and are seeking $3 million in punitive damages.
Legal experts disagree on which side holds the advantage.
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Washburn University law professor Michael Hunter Schwartz has kept an eye on the case and thinks Prince has the upper hand. He doesn't think K-State can argue that the agreement, signed by Prince and then-athletic director Bob Krause but not then-president Jon Wefald, wasn't a contract.
"That will never fly," Schwartz said.
He also said it will be difficult for K-State to argue that Krause didn't have authority — actual or apparent — to enter into a new contract with one of his coaches.
"K-State doesn't really have much of an argument," Schwartz said. "They're hoping they can throw enough smoke up that Prince will settle."
But Geoffrey Rapp, a law professor at the University of Toledo who contributes to a national blog about sports law, thinks otherwise.
In the past, approval for every part of a major coach's contract had gone through Wefald. Without him giving Krause or Prince explicit permission to enter into a memorandum without his signature, Rapp doesn't like Prince's chances.
"Unless you have something from the president, then it's a tough case to win for the coach," Rapp said. "But not an impossible one to win."
Wefald's knowledge of the memorandum is at the heart of the case. If it can be proved that he was aware of the "secret" agreement, or gave Krause instructions to use deferred compensation in an arrangement outside of the public contract, then Prince seems to be in control. If not, K-State's chances are boosted.
K-State has argued that no one outside of Krause and Prince were made aware of the memorandum until it was inadvertently found in May 2009, months after Prince had been fired. It says Krause was acting on his own, outside the authority given to him by Wefald, and that all portions of major-sport coaching contracts had to be signed by Wefald in order to be honored.
"Most universities are very adamant about making sure coaches' contracts, as high as they are, are signed by the president if not approved by the board of trustees," Rapp said. "If the AD says that's no longer the case, you need something more than that before you trust his word. You need a memo from the president or communication from the president saying that the athletic director now has his authority. Or else it would be unreasonable to believe he had the authority."
Prince's lawyers argue there was no written policy, only a general understanding, stating contracts had to be signed by the president. They have also argued, based on KSU's Intercollegiate Athletic Council bylaws at the time, that Krause had the authority as IAC president to enter into any contract on behalf of the IAC.
That K-State has since changed those bylaws has added fuel to that argument. But subsequent remedial measures won't help in court.
"What you do to deal with something afterwards is generally non-admissible because it would discourage people from fixing things," Washburn's Schwartz said. "... They won't need that, though. The Prince people have a great case."
Schwartz thinks that way, in part, because the public contract with Wefald's signature indicated there could be memorandums added onto the agreement, while Prince's original contract said it was the entire agreement.
U.S. District Judge Sam Crow agrees. In his order sending the case back to state district court, he wrote the fact that the memorandum lacked Wefald's signature was unimportant.
"The court finds this irrelevant," he wrote, "since the parties agree that the 2005 agreement was replaced and superseded by the 2008 agreement, which omitted that requirement."
Toledo's Rapp thinks that could help Prince's side as the suit goes forward.
"It could preclude a later court from revisiting the issue," he said. "But it all depends on what stage in the litigation you were at there. If the federal court wasn't resolving the underlying contract dispute, it's a helpful provision to focus on. But it might not preclude the university from rearguing the issue."
Both Rapp and Schwartz said this type of case usually ends in a settlement. This one easily could as well. But if both sides like their chances, it could last quite some time.
"When we're dealing with tight budgets," Rapp said, "and the university really thinks it was the victim of a rogue athletic director conspiring with the coach like this, I could see them trying to be more aggressive and taking it to the end."