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Sacramento's ill-fated pro football team's final play: A payout for its coach

Dennis Green
Dennis Green

The Sacramento Mountain Lions, a minor-league pro football team, folded in 2012 but left behind a major piece of unfinished business: a back-pay claim for nearly $1 million by their most famous employee, former NFL coach Dennis Green.

That finally has been resolved, six years after the team's final game and two years after Green's death.

Lawyers for Green's widow, Marie Green, confirmed Thursday that she has settled her lawsuit against former team owner William Hambrecht, a prominent Bay Area investment banker. Settlement terms weren't disclosed but the agreement "was in Marie Green's favor, according to her perspective," said one of her attorneys, Micah Clatterbaugh.

The Mountain Lions played in the now-defunct United Football League, which was conceived as a challenger to the powerful National Football League. Green coached the Mountain Lions in their first three seasons, coming out of retirement after previously coaching Stanford and the NFL's Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals.

The Mountain Lions were a big hit at first with Sacramentans, drawing as many as 20,000 fans to their games at Sacramento State's Hornet Stadium. But the success was largely an illusion. Hambrecht's business partner Paul Pelosi, another high-profile Bay Area businessman, later told the Wall Street Journal that the team doled out lots of free passes to gin up enthusiasm for the fledgling league.

Green always understood that the United Football League was on shaky financial ground, but he relied on verbal assurances by Hambrecht and Pelosi that he would get paid, according to court papers. The two men were investors in the league itself as well as the Sacramento franchise.

Court records show the Mountain Lions paid Green $1 million for the 2010 season and raised his salary to $1.5 million for 2011. However, he was only paid $510,000 for the 2011 season. He sued the team and the league for breach of contract with two games left in the season, but coached the final two games nevertheless.

"Athletes and coaches don't quit," he told The Sacramento Bee a few months before his death in 2016, explaining his decision to finish out the season on the sidelines.

"Anytime they want to, they can cut a check," he added. Green moved from San Diego to the Garden Highway area of Sacramento while he was coaching the Mountain Lions.

After his departure, the team limped along under a new coach in 2012 but halted play in mid-season, along with the rest of the United Football League. The Mountain Lions' final home game, at Raley Field, drew just 5,210 fans.

In the meantime, Green continued fighting in court for his money. His agent, Gary O'Hagan, said Thursday that Green always felt it was important — in some respects a matter of pride — to get paid for the work he had done in Sacramento.

"To not be compensated is the ... ultimate disrespect," O'Hagan said. "Dennis was a very serious, diligent football coach. It didn't feel good to him to be disrespected, based on how important his job was every day."

In 2013 an arbitrator awarded Green the balance of his unpaid salary — $990,000. A year later the decision was confirmed by a San Francisco Superior Court judge. But it was essentially an empty ruling; the Mountain Lions and the rest of the United Football League were long gone by that point, and Green didn't collect a dime.

So Green filed a new lawsuit, personally accusing Hambrecht and Pelosi of fraud and breach of contract. His court papers quoted multiple statements by the two men pledging to keep the league and the team going in spite of financial headwinds. "It took the American Football League nine or 10 years to make it. We're committed to (the UFL) for the long haul," Hambrecht told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2010.

Pelosi, the husband of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, won a court ruling in 2016 excusing him from the case.

Hambrecht, a storied financier who's worked with companies such as Apple and Google, was the league's principal investor and remained as a defendant. He tried unsuccessfully to have the case dismissed in February, and court records show a settlement was reached a month later.

His lawyer, Sarah Youngblood-Bates, declined to comment on the settlement.

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