Sunday, January 11, 2004

Vili Fehoko portrays UH's warrior mascot at football and men's volleyball games, such as Thursday's volleyball game against Penn State.

Mascot Vili under
scrutiny at UH

Aggressive actions by the
football mascot have raised
concerns among some fans

Even though he's not on the team, Vili Fehoko has raised the profile of the University of Hawaii football program considerably over the past four seasons.

The TV cameras often spotlight him during game telecasts. He's been interviewed on ESPN. His face has been plastered in newspaper and TV ads. Fans, cheerleaders, mascots and coaches of opposing teams -- even referees -- have sought to have their pictures taken with him.

But the attention that the UH Warrior mascot has attracted lately isn't the kind UH wants.

Enough fans have criticized Fehoko's recent aggressive behavior toward opponents and their supporters that the university is re-evaluating the mascot program and whether Fehoko, a 38-year-old professional entertainer, will continue to serve as its public face.

"We hear our fans loud and clear," said Tom Sadler, UH's associate athletics director. "We don't condone that type of behavior. We're going to address it."

Asked whether the revised mascot program would include Fehoko, Sadler said, "We're keeping all our options open."

Vili the Warrior looked on Thursday at the men's volleyball game against Penn State in the Stan Sheriff Center.

After the nationally televised Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, a triple-overtime Christmas Day thriller that ended in an embarrassing brawl between UH and University of Houston players, some people publicly complained that Fehoko's actions -- punctuated by an in-your-face, frenzied, high-volume, machismo style -- further embarrassed the school and state.

His yelling during a sideline interview broadcast nationally that Houston wasn't welcome here and his taunting of the opposition triggered most of the post-Christmas sniping, some of which appeared in letters to local newspapers.

"I am a recent graduate of the University of Hawaii, and I believe we need to replace our current mascot," Jennifer Chang wrote in a letter published in the Star-Bulletin. "He is rude, taunts the opposing team and shouts on national television that our opponent is not welcome."

But even before Christmas, his actions at other UH football games had been called into question. The school received fewer than 20 complaints after each home game with the University of Texas-El Paso in October and the University of Alabama the following month, according to Sadler. A similar number of complaints was received after the bowl game.

Vili look-alikes line the stands at the Hawaii Bowl in anticipation of a fan contest.

Some fans blasted what they called his crude or distasteful gestures, such as the time he grabbed the trunk of the University of Alabama's elephant mascot, stuck the trunk near Fehoko's rear end and started trotting away, dragging the elephant for a few seconds.

Fehoko clearly has been a huge supporter of UH football, Sadler said, but it is also clear some changes are needed with the mascot program. Performing distasteful acts and telling opponents they are unwelcome, for instance, cannot be tolerated, he added.

Sadler apologized on the university's behalf to anyone offended by Fehoko's actions and said the university over the next few weeks will reassess the overall mascot program.

Fehoko defended his behavior, saying his warrior routine was designed to entertain. He said his actions weren't meant to hurt or offend anyone, only to energize fans.

Warrior Isaac Sopoaga is greeted by Vili as he runs out on the field for a game.

"If you understand sports, people understand that," he said. "That's part of the game. It's all about entertainment."

Asked if he thought he sometimes went overboard with his mascot performance, Fehoko said, "No, I never came across that."

The university has tried to rein in Fehoko's behavior. After an incident between the warrior mascot and a UTEP cheerleader in October at Aloha Stadium, Sadler met with Fehoko to set general guidelines.

Fehoko was told, among other things, that he couldn't make vulgar or distasteful gestures, couldn't make statements such as "Kill the opponents" or "Let's make war," and couldn't make physical contact with the opposing team's cheerleaders or mascot, Sadler said.

A UH band member has his own versions of Vili the Warrior in the stands at the bowl.

But at the Nov. 29 home game against Alabama, not only did Fehoko grab the trunk of Big Al, the Crimson Tide's elephant mascot, he picked up Big Al and flung him in the air several yards, according to witnesses. Minutes later, while the elephant mascot was on the ground after going through a playful routine with Fehoko, the warrior did a wrestling-like jump, landing squarely on Big Al, the witnesses said.

The Alabama student who was inside the elephant costume is 5 feet 8 inches and weighs about 165 pounds, said Debbie Greenwell, coordinator of Alabama's cheerleading squad. Fehoko is 6 feet and weighs about 290 pounds.

"I think Vili took it too far," said Greenwell, who witnessed the interaction between the two mascots. "It definitely wasn't scripted. He really could have hurt our mascot."

The student was uninjured but sore the next day, she said.

Fehoko said the two mascots had talked about their routine beforehand -- a contention Greenwell disputed. Fehoko said he didn't land on Big Al with his full weight, precisely to prevent the Alabama student from getting hurt. After the game, Alabama cheerleaders took pictures with Fehoko and were laughing, indicating that nothing was amiss, he said.

Sadler said he didn't pursue investigating Fehoko's contact with the Alabama mascot because Fehoko told him it was choreographed. Alabama also didn't lodge a complaint.

In the UTEP incident a few weeks earlier, a cheerleader reportedly threw a pompom at the UH mascot, who threw a ti-leaf bracelet at the cheerleader, striking her in the face. The latter act was captured on home video and shown on a local newscast.

Fehoko wouldn't discuss the UTEP matter, but said the media wrongly made him out to be the bad guy.

David Vasquez, UTEP's cheerleading coach, said Fehoko's actions were unprovoked. But even if the UH mascot had been heckled beforehand, throwing the ti-leaf object at a cheerleader's face was inappropriate, Vasquez said. She was stunned but not injured, he said.

"We get heckled all the time when we travel (to away games)," Vasquez said. "But we never respond in that manner."

Unlike most large schools, UH does not have a student acting as a mascot.

Fehoko's company, Big Vil Productions, is paid $400 for each UH athletic event he performs at, according to Big Vil's three-year contract with the school. The agreement is scheduled to end in June 2005.

There are no behavior guidelines in the contract, but it states that UH is free to end the agreement when such action is in the school's interests.

Fehoko's company, headed by his wife, Linda, owns the rights to the warrior character portrayed by Fehoko. Their young sons usually perform at the games, as well.

Fehoko began his Aloha Stadium act in 2000 after football coach June Jones saw the former Polynesian Culture Center dancer perform at a banquet and invited him to bring his showmanship to UH football games. Fehoko also performs at men's home volleyball games.

Fehoko is popular with many fans, who like the energy he brings to the games.

"He keeps everyone motivated," said Kevin Eiker, 23, an elementary school teacher and UH football fan. "He keeps their spirits up."

After a UH game is televised nationally, Fehoko said he gets laudatory e-mails from people all over the country.

His popularity, supporters say, is enhanced by the free performances he and his family put on for charitable events and at local schools.

Fehoko said he suspects the complaints about him are from people who are "June Jones haters" and who want to hurt the coach via him. He said the criticisms will blow over and everything should be back to normal by next football season.

"All those things will go down the drain," he said. "I'm not going to change what I do. I feel like I've been blessed for doing this."


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