Thursday, March 11, 1999
UH for breach
The former football coachBy Paul Arnett
says the university isn't acting
in good faith
Former Hawaii head football coach Fred vonAppen filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the Board of Regents yesterday in First Circuit Court.
VonAppen is claiming attempts to reassign him to Honolulu Community College and to cut his benefits package and salary by 34 percent are in violation of the three-year deal he signed nearly 14 months ago.
Last November, Hawaii athletic director Hugh Yoshida and president Ken Mortimer fired vonAppen after the Rainbows finished 5-31 in his three seasons as coach.
Since then, Yoshida and Mortimer backtracked somewhat, telling vonAppen they wanted to reassign him, something they can do based on the terms of the deal.
"But here is where we have a problem," vonAppen attorney Guy Sibilla said from his law office yesterday afternoon. "The complaint we have says you have to do one of two things. If you terminate him under the terms of the contract, you must buy him out, much like they did (former UH head coach) Bob Wagner.
"If you want to reassign him under the terms of the contract, then you can't reassign him to an illegal position. You can call Hugh Yoshida and ask him where in the contract it says anything about Honolulu Community College.
"To add insult to injury, they want to withhold benefits and send him to a college that has no athletic department, even though Coach vonAppen has 36 years of experience in the NFL and in Division I football. It's a violation of the agreement they negotiated."
VonAppen told the Star-Bulletin yesterday that he wished it hadn't come to this. He said he didn't know anything about being reassigned to Honolulu Community College until he read about it in a story published in the morning paper in late January.
"When I saw that story, I knew the university wasn't acting in good faith," vonAppen said. "A lot of time has passed since I was fired and nothing has been resolved.
"We have reached a point of impasse on what is really just a business proposition. I don't have anything against Honolulu Community College, but I have no experience doing the job they want me to do. Filing suit is something I never wanted to do, but the options they gave me left me no choice. I have no quarrels at being fired. That's their right, but what they're trying to do now is not right or fair."
Sibilla believes the university had hoped vonAppen would land a football job on the mainland and forfeit the two years pay owed him.
"Without any doubt in my mind, I think what they are trying to do is create a situation where they are trying to leverage Coach vonAppen out of the state without living up to their obligations," Sibilla said. "They are trying to embarrass him.
"They are trying to withhold money they owe him. All of which is illegal and all of which is in violation of the contract they signed. It's unfair. It's unjust. And it shows the punitive nature of their strategy that if you don't go along with their program, they're going to try to make you uncomfortable. It's not right and that's why we're in court."
The university has 20 days to answer the complaint. Once answered, the law suit is engaged. From that point on, Sibilla will be allowed to take depositions and have the right to review any pertinent documents.
Attorney Burt Kobayashi will handle the suit for the athletic department. University officials refused comment. Among the people Sibilla wants depositions from are Yoshida and Mortimer.
Although Sibilla is vonAppen's personal attorney, the actual suit is being handled by Koshiba, Agena & Kubota.
"I instructed the Koshiba Firm that along with the complaint I wanted documents and deposition notices from Dr. Mortimer and Hugh Yoshida because they participated in this process," Sibilla said. "We want to hear from them, under oath, what they are willing to say.
"Reassignment has to be within the university. All throughout the contract, it's UH-Manoa. It never specifies anywhere Honolulu Community College because it wasn't contemplated by the parties involved.
"On reassignment, there is no provision that allows them to change the compensation or the benefits package of the coach. In other words, he may not be on the football field, but all his compensation and benefits follow him to any position at UH-Manoa."
VonAppen said yesterday that he had been approached by NFL coaches for possible positions, but had to turn them away.
"I kind of dug my heals in here because taking a job on the mainland is exactly what they wanted me to do," vonAppen said. "I'm supposed to speak at Arizona State later this month and I hope I can get away to do that because I miss being around football. It's my life. I appreciate the support I've received and continue to receive from people in Hawaii. I just want to get this thing resolved and move forward."