Former athletic director sues St. Francis, claims bias in firing

Kolleen “Koko” McNamee was an unlikely candidate for banishment from the campus of her beloved St. Francis Catholic High School.

The Sacramento native graduated from the all-girls school, as did her three sisters and an aunt. She was its athletic director for 11 years. She said she once believed her three daughters would attend St. Francis. Now, that won’t happen.

In August 2012, McNamee was fired as athletic director, watched by a guard while she packed her belongings, and then escorted off the campus.

Later that year, McNamee sued the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, owner of St. Francis; the school; two of its former administrators and one who is still there. McNamee’s suit claims she was subjected to gender discrimination, retaliation and defamation. She is seeking unspecified monetary damages.

After the lawsuit was filed, McNamee returned to St. Francis, known for quality academics, to retrieve some records, only to learn she had been banned from campus, she said during an interview Thursday at her attorney Jill Telfer’s office.

As in most complex civil litigation, there are litanies of claims and counterclaims, a big cast of characters, and a confusing array of events and incidents. What really occurred is in dispute.

Boiled down, McNamee says she was fired in retaliation for trying to get rid of Vic Pitton, the varsity basketball coach, because of what she saw as ugly behavior at games. Pitton, who is not named in the lawsuit, still works at the school.

Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Sacramento diocese, says the church “does not believe it acted rashly or wrongly, and there is no discrimination here.”

“St. Francis is an all-girls institution, and a vast majority of the staff is female,” Eckery said. “That can hardly be seen as discriminatory against women. The school has a long tradition of doing what’s right by the young ladies who attend it.”

Asked about Pitton’s game demeanor, which McNamee found unacceptable, Eckery replied: “We made a decision in the best interests of the school and the team, and we stand by it.”

Federal Judge Morrison C. England Jr. last week rejected a request by the diocese to throw the lawsuit out.

After her departure from St. Francis, McNamee became general manager of the Sacramento Capitals of World Team Tennis and was preparing last year to move with the team to Las Vegas. Instead, she found herself once again out of work after team owner Deepal Wannakuwatte was unmasked as a monumental financial fraudster. The team went out of business as part of the fallout from federal charges against Wannakuwatte.

McNamee said she then applied for a position at Christian Brothers High School, but was not interviewed. She now works as a representative of Northwestern Mutual, a provider of financial products and services.

McNamee, 41, attended California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, on a soccer scholarship. In 1993, she was named the MVP of the NCAA Division II women’s soccer final four, and she holds several school records. After graduating, she was Cal Poly’s assistant women’s soccer coach for four years.

In 2005, while head of St. Francis athletics, she received a master’s degree with honors in athletic administration from Ohio University, court records say.

Court papers also reflect that during her tenure at St. Francis, McNamee consistently received exemplary performance evaluations.

Pitton, 58, played varsity basketball at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento but did not compete in college. He consistently produces winning teams and is highly regarded by many in the world of prep sports in the Sacramento region. He was The Sacramento Bee’s girls basketball coach of the year in 2008.

He declined to speak to a reporter for this article.

Pitton took the reins as head coach at St. Francis in 1998. He left in 2000 and was rehired in 2004. He told The Bee at the time that he stepped down because, beginning in the 2000-01 season, his daughter would be playing varsity basketball for St. Francis, and he did not want to coach her.

“I always told myself that I’d never coach my daughter,” Pitton said at the time. “I’ll support her, I’ll be her biggest fan, but I think it’s extremely difficult to coach your own kid. You tend to be too hard on them, and I don’t want to have to deal with any problems or concerns like, ‘Oh, Vic’s playing her too much,’ or anything like that.”

Pitton’s version of why he left conflicts with the court declaration of Kay Gaines, who spent more than 40 years at St. Francis and was its principal from 1998 to 2004.

“Because of his behavior … I removed Pitton,” Gaines swore. “I personally witnessed him being volatile, going in rages during games, and yelling at referees. Pitton’s actions during games were contrary to how I wanted SFHS to be portrayed.”

McNamee was a member of the panel that rehired Pitton a few years later. In a sworn court declaration, she acknowledges some awareness that he “was previously involuntarily terminated” because of unsportsmanlike conduct. “However,” she says in the declaration, “I also learned that he was a technically sound and passionate coach. He expressed during his interviews he had corrected the previous behavior. As a result, I supported his hire.”

After Pitton was rehired, his objectionable behavior re-emerged, McNamee said in her declaration.

Another court document filed in the case includes notes taken in the spring of 2009 by Trisha Urhammer, then an assistant principal at St. Francis and McNamee’s boss. In an accompanying declaration, Urhammer said she agreed with McNamee that Pitton should be removed.

“From 2005 to 2009, I witnessed questionable conduct of the head varsity basketball coach, Mr. Vic Pitton,” Urhammer swore under oath in the declaration. “He had not made the needed improvement in his personal demeanor during games, and in the way he handled athletes who made mistakes during play.”

Urhammer wrote in her notes, “Although he certainly cares for students, his demeanor on the sidelines was not living up to the St. Francis standards of role-modeling restraint at games and offering positive support for team players. He, at times, lost his temper, swore, and yelled and used hand gestures that showed anger towards referees.

“He also showed impatience and disappointment with individual athletes, who were summarily pulled off the court after making any mistakes. We had spoken to Vic about these behaviors a number of times over the course of several years, but improvement was minimal.”

McNamee told The Bee she was assured by school administrators in the spring of 2011 that she had the backing to keep Pitton from returning the following season.

But, she said, they reneged on the commitment, announcing on May 26, 2011, while McNamee was on maternity leave, that Pitton would continue as head basketball coach, and that the program would start reporting to a male assistant principal with no experience in athletics, instead of to McNamee’s boss, also a woman.

Two weeks later, McNamee hand-delivered a letter to Dom Puglisi, superintendent of schools for the diocese, and Kathy Conner, the diocese chancellor. In the letter, contained in court files, she expressed her frustration at being undermined even after school administrators agreed to let Pitton go.

“I went through six years of hell trying to effect positive change to something that was broken,” she told The Bee.

The next year, within a month of the installation of a new president dispatched by the diocese to assume command at St. Francis, it was McNamee, not Pitton, who was fired. A man was hired to replace her.

“It was awful,” she recalled. “I was devastated. There were multiple deaths that day. It was the death of my job, my career, my faith in the church and the people who were supposed to protect me, the future of my daughters, and my reputation was tarnished.

“I have a hard time going to church right now. It’s really traumatic when someone walks up to you and asks why you were fired and you can’t really say.”

She pulled her two older daughters out of a Catholic elementary school and put them in a public school. “With the way I have been treated, my husband and I are concerned how our daughters will be treated in school in the diocese,” she said.

McNamee was fired by Margo Brown, who assumed the presidency of St. Francis on July 1, 2012. “Based on her assessments and meetings with plaintiff, it became Ms. Brown’s judgment and opinion that plaintiff was not the person that could lead the athletic department consistent with Brown’s vision of the school,” lawyers for the diocese wrote in court papers supporting their motion for summary judgment in favor of their client.

“Under applicable law and the undisputed facts in the record, all plaintiff’s claims fail,” the defense lawyers wrote.

Judge England disagreed. In a 21-page order denying the motion, which was filed last Monday, England rejected every one of the diocese’s arguments. He said the issues raised by McNamee should be sorted out at a trial and, based on the evidence he has seen so far, a jury could decide in favor of McNamee on all her claims.

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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