HONOLULU — In a remarkable livestreamed hearing of more than two hours, University of Hawaii football coach Todd Graham, athletic director David Matlin and president David Lassner were grilled by the Hawaii Senate on the state of an athletic program they perceived to be in disarray after more than a dozen player defections during or following the 2021 football season.
More than a half-dozen current and former players and family members testified about the alleged mistreatment they endured under Graham, the veteran coach in his second year in Manoa.
Pointed questions followed from the Senate Ways and Means and Higher Education Committees.
Within two hours after the hearing, Sen. Kurt Fevella, who was at times agitated during the procedure, went on Facebook Live and called for a petition for the removal of Graham, Matlin and Lassner. He was not convinced by a response from Graham denying an allegation about using racist language for some of his players.
“This meeting was about people getting injured, mental and physical injury,” Fevella said. “It was the lack of transparency, compassion, everything.”
"We have almost a whole starting lineup leaving. That's a problem," he said. "That's more than one red flag; there's all kinds of flags flying in the air. Red, white and blue, green, yellow and red. But the Board of Regents didn't think anything of it. The president didn't think anything of it. How's that?
"They all must go."
Graham, who was eventually given a chance to speak more than an hour into the hearing, acknowledged some shortcomings with his "old school" coaching style. He said it had been a “stressful” two years amid the pandemic and the lack of an available home football stadium while acknowledging he can improve.
“Obviously there’s things that I’ve learned. You have to evolve,” Graham said.
“Going back and reflecting as a coach, you always want to make sure your players know you love them,” Graham said. “So, more empathy, and those type (of) things. I do love these players. Every player that I coach, that’s why I coach.”
However, testimony included:
“Coach Graham has truly stripped the love and joy out for a lot of people,” former defensive lineman Derek Thomas said.
Former defensive back Leonard Lee, a walk-on from Kapolei, said that Graham was “hands down the worst guy I’ve ever met in my life.” Lee was cut from the team after speaking out against Graham previously, including saying walk-ons and other players were ostracized from each other.
The mother of former offensive lineman Michael Eletise said that her son had reported a head injury to Graham’s coaching staff, but no help was given. He was given a medical retirement, Marie Eletise said, and he left school just shy of graduation. She said her son had permanent brain damage.
“I feel so sorry what all these players and families are going through,” Eletise’s father, Nofoaiga, said. “If you want to bring this program to No. 1 we’d better do something now.”
Even Mililani High coach Rod York, a UH football alumnus who said he had nothing against Graham personally, chimed in.
“The people who hired Coach Graham did not do their homework,” York said.
Prominent player defections like quarterback Chevan Cordeiro and running back Dae Dae Hunter to the NCAA transfer portal following a 6-7 regular season gave rise to the discussion in early December. More players have followed them out in the ensuing weeks — a figure of 19 was mentioned repeatedly during the hearing — including All-Mountain West Conference linebacker Darius Muasau, who recently committed to UCLA.
Sen. Glenn Wakai asked Matlin directly if the athletic department would buy out Graham if it had the money to do so. Graham, who makes $800,000 annually and has three years left on his original five-year contract, could reportedly be bought out for half the amount remaining on his contract – $1.2M.
Matlin said he would not.
“I’ve worked with Coach Graham for two football seasons, and I can say without a doubt that they were probably the two most challenging years any UH football coach had to face in the history of our program due to the myriad of factors beyond control," Matlin said. "Some of the players may not like his coaching style, but none of them contested the fact that he was … a very experienced, knowledgeable, skilled Xs and Os coach. He’s respected in the industry…”
Matlin, who hired Graham in January 2020, took issue with what he called a “more-than-one-sided” hearing – he and Lassner were caught off guard by the allowance of any oral testimony whatsoever – and said he would stand by Graham while acknowledging some changes in coaching style will need to occur.
That includes cultural mentorship for Graham, who is from Texas.
Lassner, in turn, stood by Matlin. Lassner sat directly in front of the senators, while other UH figures – Matlin, Graham, and Board of Regents chairman Randolph Moore – appeared virtually. The testimonies were also given remotely.
In a response to what Senate members said were frequent phone calls and email expressing concern for the UH football program, the committees had asked for testimonies, including written submissions, about the state of the program.
The Senate committees did not appear satisfied by explanations from Matlin and Graham that the NCAA transfer portal has created a transient culture among college football players, who now skip the old one-year sit-out penalty going from school to school.
However, Lassner called the testimonies “cherry-picked” and noted UH was not allowed to call upon testimonies from players or others beyond what its administrators on the call could give.
Attorney Jeff Portnoy, a former member of the Board of Regents, thought neither UH nor the Legislature came away looking good from the day's events.
“I can’t think of a single positive,” Portnoy told Spectrum News. “It only added to the mounting problems for the football program.”
Things got off on the wrong foot Friday when the Senate began asking Lassner about the UH athletics budget deficit. Lassner said he was not aware that would be a topic of discussion at the hearing.
Graham was asked repeatedly about his cultural fit in Hawaii. At one point, the mother of Thomas, Tina Thomas, testified that Graham was overheard saying Hawaii is a “third-world country” because a vending machine was not stocked with Dr. Pepper.
Sen. Kurt Fevella asked Graham if he had referred to local players as “pineapple pickers” and African-American players as "porch monkeys," as was indicated in a submitted letter of testimony.
Graham, who wore a neutral expression during many of his responses, replied to that question with an added edge in his voice that he did not.
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim remarked right before the session ended that submissions included current members of the UH coaching staff who would remain anonymous.
The inquiries were not only directed at football. At one point, Fevella asked Matlin about a letter of testimony he received regarding a former UH women’s basketball player who claimed she had her scholarship revoked in a retaliatory move after she was forced to play injured and spoke up about it.
Matlin replied that was not true and that the player was given a medical disqualification — which allows a player to keep receiving financial aid — instead of a revocation of scholarship.
Attorney Michael Green was among the last testimonies. He said he would not take legal action against UH on behalf of wronged former players but called upon Matlin to “have the guts to resign.”
“For the heads of this university to not know this was going on was insane,” Green said. “This is broken.”
Moore, asked by the committees if he saw reason to take immediate action, said it would be discussed at the next Board of Regents meeting on Jan. 20 but not before then.
UH was to play Memphis in the EasyPost Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24 before the Rainbow Warriors backed out of the game the day before. It blamed the decision on a COVID outbreak in the program combined with injuries and player attrition.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original story was updated with additional comments and reaction. (Jan. 7, 2022)