Business & Real Estate

Ex-NFL coach fighting owners of defunct Sacramento team over $1 million in back pay

Sacramento Mountain Lions coach Dennis Green walks the sidelines in October 2011 game against Omaha, shortly before suing the league for back pay. His widow has settled the case with a former Mountain Lions owner.
Sacramento Mountain Lions coach Dennis Green walks the sidelines in October 2011 game against Omaha, shortly before suing the league for back pay. His widow has settled the case with a former Mountain Lions owner.

The Sacramento Mountain Lions didn’t exactly go out with a roar. The minor-league pro football team lost its final home game at Raley Field before just 5,210 fans.

But the team left behind a Super Bowl-worthy legal dispute over nearly $1 million in unpaid salary – a lawsuit pitting a respected former NFL coach against two powerful Bay Area businessmen who helped bankroll the United Football League before its demise in October 2012.

The coach is Dennis Green, formerly of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals, who led the Mountain Lions for three of their four seasons. The businessmen are William Hambrecht, a legendary Silicon Valley investment banker, and Paul Pelosi, a prominent real estate investor and husband of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

More than two years ago, an arbitrator awarded Green $990,000 for his work during the 2011 season, his last with the Mountain Lions. The award was affirmed by a San Francisco Superior Court judge in February 2014.

So far, though, Green hasn’t received a dime. When Green filed his suit, the league and team were still in business, and he named them as defendants. Now that they’ve folded, Green is going after Hambrecht and Pelosi for the money, arguing they were the primary backers and had promised he’d get his wages.

A judge, however, denied his attempt to amend the judgment to include the two businessmen as defendants. In a ruling last summer, the judge said Hambrecht and Pelosi’s efforts to keep the league afloat don’t make them legally responsible for its debts.

“We won the arbitration hearing but haven’t been able to collect,” Green said in an interview last week. “Anytime they want to, they can cut a check.”

Retired and living in San Diego, the 66-year-old Green is continuing to fight for the money on two tracks. He’s appealing the judge’s ruling that absolved Hambrecht and Pelosi of responsibility for his salary. He also filed a separate lawsuit last September against the two men, demanding damages for fraud and “emotional distress.”

Green received a boost this week. A judge in San Francisco rejected Pelosi’s request to halt the new lawsuit. Pelosi’s lawyer, Stuart Gordon, had argued the new case represented another “bite at the apple.”

Green’s lawyer, Dan Siegel, said the coach has little choice but to target the two investors because trying to extract money from the UFL would be fruitless. Although the league suspended play in midseason in 2012 amid a flurry of lawsuits over unpaid bills, it didn’t file for bankruptcy and has existed in a kind of legal limbo. Its assets are stored in a warehouse in Jacksonville, Fla., where the league made its headquarters, court records show.

“The assets of the league amount to something less than $50,000 or $100,000,” Siegel said. “They have some equipment and stuff – nothing that’s worth $1 million, which is what he’s owed.”

Which leaves Hambrecht and Pelosi. In court papers and an interview, Green said he relied on their personal assurances that he’d get paid even as the UFL and the Mountain Lions struggled financially.

“Both guys are extremely wealthy, and they chose not to honor their debt,” Green said in the interview.

Anytime they want to, they can cut a check.

Dennis Green, former Sacramento Mountain Lions coach

Pelosi and Hambrecht said in court papers they lost millions paying bills for the UFL and the Mountain Lions but never guaranteed Green’s salary. The coach’s contract was with the league directly and was signed by the league’s commissioner.

“He doesn’t owe Dennis Green any money,” said Pelosi’s lawyer, Gordon. “He never had a contractual agreement with Dennis Green.” Pelosi is described in court papers as the Mountain Lions’ lead investor.

Hambrecht’s lawyer, Stephen Hankins, declined comment, but in court filings Hambrecht insisted he isn’t responsible for Green’s salary.

“Mr. Green never asked me to guarantee payment of his UFL salaries,” Hambrecht wrote in one court declaration last April.

Court papers list Hambrecht as the lead investor in the UFL and a minority partner in the Mountain Lions. He testified that he personally poured $40 million into the failed league.

Hambrecht’s court filings also make clear that the United Football League represented a long shot right from the opening kickoff, a venture whose financial uncertainties were obvious to Green.

“It is admitted by Mr. Green that he was fully aware of the UFL’s financial position when he signed his coaching contracts,” Hambrecht’s lawyers wrote in a court filing last spring. “Mr. Green gambled on the success of the UFL, as did Mr. Hambrecht, the other UFL team owners, the players and the coaches. History has proven that challenging the NFL is a huge endeavor.”

The collapse of the UFL represents one of the few botched plays in Hambrecht’s legendary career. After leading the public stock offerings for companies such as Apple and Amazon, he thought he could score a financial touchdown with an alternative pro football league. According to a 2013 Wall Street Journal story, Hambrecht envisioned the UFL’s member franchises eventually selling stock to the public, too.

“He’s the money; he’s the league,” said Walter Ulman, a Phoenix lawyer who’s attempting to collect on a $2.4 million judgment against Hambrecht on behalf of a group of former players. “He was the main financial force behind it.”

Seeking instant credibility with fans, the UFL hired big-name former coaches such as Green and Jim Fassel, who once led the NFL’s New York Giants. Hambrecht personally urged Green to coach in the young league, according to Green’s newest lawsuit.

Mr. Green gambled on the success of the UFL, as did Mr. Hambrecht, the other UFL team owners, the players and the coaches.

Lawyers for William Hambrecht, lead investor in the UFL

The UFL debuted in 2009 with just four teams, including a Bay Area franchise called the California Redwoods. Green was their coach.

The Redwoods failed to develop much of a following. Splitting their home games between AT&T Park in San Francisco and San Jose State’s football stadium, they never drew more than 7,000 fans to a game. They relocated to Sacramento in 2010 and became the Mountain Lions.

The club made an initial splash in its new home. Games at Hornet Stadium at Sacramento State drew as many as 20,000 fans. Pelosi later told The Wall Street Journal that many of the fans were given free tickets. But it appeared as though a fan base was developing.

“The Sacramento community was pretty jazzed up,” Green said in the interview. “We had some very good players. ... I enjoyed the chance to continue working with young guys.”

Green was paid $1 million for the 2010 season, according to court records.

Green bought a home near the Garden Highway in Sacramento and took advantage of the proximity to the Sacramento River. “I caught a lot of salmon, a lot of striped bass,” he said. “I enjoyed Sacramento.”

Cash shortages dogged the young league, however, and soon caused a rift between Green and his bosses. Given a raise to $1.5 million for the 2011 season, Green was paid a total of $510,000, according to court records. He finished up the season, he said, only because the investors promised him he’d be paid in full.

“Green ... continued to work throughout the year in reliance upon the assurances by Hambrecht and Pelosi,” his lawyer wrote in court papers.

The coach was getting fed up, however. On Oct. 7, 2011, with two games left in the season, he sued the UFL and the Mountain Lions for breach of contract. He coached the final two games anyway.

“Athletes and coaches don’t quit,” Green said in explaining his decision to finish the season. “It wasn’t about the team; it was about me and the owner.”

Green left after the 2011 season. The Mountain Lions replaced him with former NFL quarterback Turk Schonert and moved their home to Raley Field for 2012. On Oct. 20, the day after Sacramento won a road game in Virginia, the league suspended operations and hasn’t played a down since.

By then, litigation besides Green’s was starting to pile up against the Mountain Lions, other teams and the league itself. A group of 77 former players for the Las Vegas Locomotives and Omaha Nighthawks won a judgment against Hambrecht for $2.4 million, although their lawyer, Ulman, said they still haven’t gotten paid. Former UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue won a $3.2 million judgment against Hambrecht in 2012.

The Bee couldn’t find any lawsuits by former Mountain Lions players, but others who worked for the franchise went to court to get paid. Five assistant coaches sued Pelosi and the Mountain Lions over unpaid salaries totaling $200,000. The case was settled, and Gordon said Pelosi paid the assistants. Sacramento public relations firm Runyon Saltzman Einhorn sued the UFL to collect $264,000 for publicity work. That case was settled, too, with the league paying in full.

Green isn’t the only big-name coach who went to court. Former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer, who coached the Virginia Destroyers in the UFL, sued Hambrecht in San Francisco. In early 2013, the two men agreed to a court judgment that called for Hambrecht to pay the coach $810,000.

Court records show that Schottenheimer got Hambrecht to guarantee his salary before he signed a contract. That differentiates his case from Green’s, according to Hambrecht’s lawyers.

“Mr. Schottenheimer has a signed personal guarantee from Mr. Hambrecht,” the lawyers wrote in papers filed in the Green case. “Mr. Green did not ask for nor does he have a written guarantee from Mr. Hambrecht.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler