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Experts: Removing UH’s football coach comes with a hefty price tag

Published: Jan. 12, 2022 at 9:44 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 13, 2022 at 3:16 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - At least one state senator is now calling for the resignations not only of University of Hawaii head football coach Todd Graham but of his bosses as well.

But letting go of just the coach could have pricey consequences, something that’s happened before.

The university can fire Graham without cause, but it would have to pay up.

“Over $400,000 a year, and he has three years left on that contract so you would be looking at a $1 million-plus payout,” said attorney Jim Bickerton.

“If they really seriously want to get rid of him, they’re going to have to pay him,” added Attorney Eric Seitz. “They can perhaps negotiate a compromise settlement.”

Bickerton represented Gib Arnold, who was fired as head UH basketball coach in 2014 during an NCAA investigation into illegal player perks.

UH was sanctioned by the NCAA for violations, but Arnold claimed the school owed him $1.4 million for firing him without cause before the investigation was completed.

The university eventually paid him more than $1 million, including his attorney’s fees.

UH also paid $600,000 to Greg McMackin, who was fired as head football coach in 2011, and bought out the remainder of Norm Chow’s contract for nearly $340,000 when he was fired in 2015.

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said in a statement:

“If any of the allegations against Coach Graham are found to be true, the state (and the University) could be liable, and we may have no other alternative but to consider a contract buyout or fire the coach for cause, which is what I would prefer.”

On Wednesday, state Sen. Kurt Fevella widened the net, calling for Graham, Athletic Director Dave Matlin and President David Lassner to step down, claiming they didn’t provide for the health, well-being and safety of their students.

“To have them saying ‘overlook that,’ ‘toughen up,’ or ‘you should be handling that’ — nobody should be picked on and bullied and be racist against,” said Fevella.

But UH disputes that.

In an emailed statement, spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the claim that UH officials failed to provide for student safety, health and well-being “is false. There are robust mental health services available to all UH Manoa students through the campus Counseling and Student Development Center, which accepts urgent individual walk-in appointments and telephone crisis consultations.

“Student athletes have added layers of mental health services available through the athletic department’s medical staff and an exclusive outside mental health care provider. The student-athletes too are also reminded regularly of the services available to them, and coaches and athletic department staff will encourage students to seek help when they see students who may be struggling,” he added.

Meisenzahl also said that if any player sought services due to abuse from the coach, the school would have opened an investigation.

Despite the scathing testimony at last week’s state senate hearing, they are still only allegations.

“Now if he did actually abuse players as has been suggested, perhaps that would rise to that level, but there are two sides to every conversation,” said Seitz.

UH also said Graham waived the $20,000 bonus he was entitled to after the team made it to the Hawaii Bowl, which it never played.

The university’s Board of Regents will discuss the football program at a meeting on Jan. 20, but it does not have the power to fire the coach. That responsibility lies with the athletic director.

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