Lee Cataluna: Todd Graham's Unforgivable Sin? He Didn't Understand Our Culture - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

What exactly did former University of Hawaii head football coach Todd Graham do that was so terrible?

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Why did he turn on his heel and dump out so quickly, announcing his resignation on a Friday night and immediately putting his “barely lived in” house on the market?

There were many allegations of disappointing behavior — some truly awful, some kind of petty – that surfaced before Graham took the hint and quit his job.

But one complaint in particular kept being repeated, like an alarm rising up from T.C. Ching field and echoing off Waahila Ridge.

“He has a rejection of the culture,” said player Leonard Lee, who was unceremoniously kicked off the team last month after daring to speak out about morale on social media.

“Coach Graham doesn’t care about the culture,” said Darryl McBride, a former Hawaii player who hosted the Twitter Space that started an avalanche of complaints about morale from current team members.

“I don’t see the love for Hawaii football culture anymore,” Tina Thomas, the mother of one of the players told state senators taking testimony on the team’s discord in a Jan. 7 hearing.

“When Coach Rolovich was our head coach, he understood the culture in Hawaii,” former Hawaii player Solomon Matautia wrote in his testimony submitted to the Senate Ways and Means and Higher Education committees, drawing a comparison between the good days of Rolo and the dismal days of Graham.

Other written testimony (submitted anonymously) included more variations on the theme:

“There’s a disconnect with him and the local culture that he will never understand.”

“He doesn’t seem ingrained to the Hawaii program or fully embraced in the local culture.”

Of all the criticisms of the football coach, this disregard of “culture” seemed the most damning, the one thing that summed up everything that was wrong. It sounds like something so terrible, yet it is terribly vague.

“Culture” seems like code for something, or for many things, and not superficial things like disparaging Spam, wearing shoes inside a Hawaii house or mangling the pronunciation of “Kalanianaole.”

In this instance, it could be the specific football culture of the Hawaii team; it could be the culture of the university or the UH fan base. It could be the island culture or the Hawaiian culture or the culture of the millennial players who will not put up with the nonsense and abuse that past generations of players endured as an arbitrary burden of being a man. It is most likely all these things and more.

UH Football Coach Todd Graham.
Many people think UH Football Coach Todd Graham’s biggest mistake was failing to understand the complex culture in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Cultural fit is a crucial measure by which so many things are judged.

For example, when Florida utility giant NextEra was trying to buy Hawaiian Electric in 2016, MidWeek ran a feature piece about a group of linemen endorsing the sale of their company. The quotes were almost all about this idea of cultural understanding. For example: “We have a unique culture in Hawaii that’s family-based, ohana-style. When I shared with my fellow linemen that the Florida workers are the same tight-knit group that works together like we do, it took the edge off.”

The happy talk didn’t work. NextEra’s effort to take over Hawaiian Electric failed.

When Bank of America came to Hawaii in the early ’90s, the main worry was a new shift to interstate banking, but this was expressed as “the loss of the moderating influences on business practices of rootedness in local community culture and traditions,” as psychologist Claude Chemtob wrote in the Honolulu Advertiser. Bank of America ended up leaving town by 1997, and the resulting mess lingers still.

To understand and respect the culture of any place is to be open to learning, to be observant and respectful, to have the humility to ask questions rather than assume you know everything.

When Macy’s bought beloved Liberty House in 2001, the biggest questions were about cultural fit and understanding. Would the stores still carry aloha wear? Would the sales staff still be as warm and helpful? Will the clothing in stock still be sized to fit the people who live here? The answers to those questions are why many people still miss Liberty House.

One thing that makes this measure of “understanding the culture” complicated is that, particularly in the case of Todd Graham, it wasn’t invoked by insiders as a way to keep an outsider out. Even players and parents of players from other states were bemoaning Graham’s cultural insensitivity.

This emphasis on cultural understanding actually isn’t squishy or emotional. It’s practical. It’s about fit and the ability to adapt, which are basic business, leadership and survival requirements. If what you’re doing doesn’t work in the place you’re doing it, either change tactics or move somewhere else.

To understand and respect the culture of any place (not just intense, idiosyncratic Hawaii) is to be open to learning, to be observant and respectful, to have the humility to ask questions rather than assume you know everything.

There’s something about these islands that brings out the best and the worst in people in this regard. Hawaii is not a place that can be “just like home” except with better weather. Some people make excellent world travelers, some should just stay where they’re comfortable.

Meanwhile, in discussing the possibility of June Jones returning to coach the UH football team, his sports agent Leigh Steinberg told the Star-Advertiser, “There is no one who understands and embraces the culture of the islands better than June.”

That quality, almost above all other assets, is what his agent was touting as a selling point.

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About the Author

Lee Cataluna

Lee Cataluna is a columnist for Civil Beat. You can reach her by email at lcataluna@civilbeat.org

Latest Comments (0)

This was a nicely written article. Thank you.

savhcc · 3 months ago

If there are multiple players saying these things, then maybe there's something there. I'm not sure what "getting the culture" or "understanding the culture" means, would anyone here admit that they do? There weren't too many specifics reported, I would try to ask questions about specific behavior or things that were said instead.

elrod · 3 months ago

Who is involved in the hiring of the coach? There needs to be transparency so the people of Hawaii knows what is going on at OUR university.

HoldTheLine · 3 months ago

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