By Kevin Cloe and
Former Wickenburg High School boys basketball coach Dave Hodges, who was fired by the school district Dec. 10, said last week he is still considering possible legal action against the district as an option.
Hodges, who was preparing to start his third season as the Wranglers’ head basketball coach, said he was told during a phone call two days before the first scheduled game of the current season on Nov. 29 that he was being dismissed.
He said he was surprised by the action and was not given a reason for his dismissal.
“My firing is a personal vendetta that involves just a few people, and it’s a firing in search of an excuse,” Hodges told school board members during their regular meeting three weeks ago. “The reason I say this is because I was called on the phone, no warning, no pre-emptive action, fired over the phone an hour before practice, and I was hung up on when I when I asked for clarification.”
He said he had asked Wickenburg School Superintendent Dr. Howard Carlson to present his case to the school board, which had to formally approve or reject the recommendation from Wickenburg High School Athletic Director Matt Johnson anyway.
“I wanted a (non-monetary) settlement meeting,” he further explained, requesting an executive session with the board the night of the meeting on Dec. 10. “I don’t want to take money from the district. I care about these kids. I care about the district, but I won’t have my reputation sullied when I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Hodges had coached the Wranglers to two consecutive successful years — reaching the 3A Conference state playoff quarterfinals both seasons and posting a record of 43 wins and 14 losses (22-10 and 21-4), but his entire starting lineup and eight of the 14 players on his roster last year graduated in the spring. The team has since started the 2019-20 season losing its first nine games under the guidance of former junior varsity and current interim varsity coach Noel Hachtel.
“I was recruited to come to Wickenburg,” Hodges told the school board early last month. “The community reached out to me, not the other way around. I was called to come here to fix a broken basketball program, in the words of those who recruited me, and I’ve done just that.”
Athletic Director Johnson hinted at the school board meeting that his issue was with Coach Hodges’ year-round program.
“Basketball runs summer programs, both boys and girls, they go nonstop,” he reported. “This isn’t a three-months-out-of-the-year issue. This is an all-year thing. They go all-year long.”
Hodges noted he had 18 varsity athletes the past two years, with 17 of them playing multiple sports and nine who had played three sports.
“There are programs that I think overstepped their bounds and stepped into other programs with offseason club sports,” Hodges noted. “I’m not one of them. I’ve never had a kid miss a minute of another sport, practice or games. But it has happened to us.”
He added that he never received concerns from Johnson regarding his year-round program or any other issues.
“I just happened to see yesterday the district put into writing the first time why I’m being terminated – insubordination,” he told the school board. “For what? I don’t have any dates, times, events. With the program I’ve put together for this district, why wasn’t I called in and said ‘Dave, we have some concerns – 1, 2, and 3. Can you fix them?’ That never happened.
“I was the victim of a sneak attack,” he added. “This is something I don’t think the board wants to have go on. You don’t want a reputation of treating your employees in this fashion — especially one that’s put together what I’ve done for this district. What I’m telling you right now, I don’t want litigation. I do see the way things are going; I don’t have a choice. I’m an at-will employee until rules are broken. And significant rules have been broken. If I win a judgment, if we go further, I won’t put that money in my bank account. I’ll put back into the students and high school in some fashion with a scholarship. I’m not out for money, but I’m going to preserve my reputation.”
Johnson, who also addressed the school board that same night in defense of his requested action, said the decision to dismiss Hodges was not a sudden consideration.
“I want the board to know that this was not a sneak attack or spur of the moment thing,” he explained. “This was something that has been happening over the course of a year and a half.”
However, he declined to elaborate on the details of that decision.
“The documentation that I have provided is for a year and a half’s worth of issues,” he told the board. “This wasn’t something that was rushed into, not something made on a whim, this was carefully thought out, calculated, pros and cons.
“I don’t want to say too much,” he added. “I don’t want this to get into a he-said, she-said and I don’t want to point any fingers.”
Hodges claimed he wasn’t aware of any past issues.
“Matt Johnson told the board (at the Dec. 10 meeting) that he had 18 months of documentation against me, but I was never told what that documentation consisted of,” the fired coach told The Sun in separate interview last week. “This did nothing but hurt the kids. I have my life; it is rich and full, and I have moved on. But my heart aches for these kids as they have had the promise of this season ripped away from them and they did nothing to deserve this. It is not fair that they are getting punished because of an obvious personal dislike for me for some unspecified reason. We are supposed to be about serving kids. The administration, in this instance, miserably failed in this regard.”
He explained the team experienced some success during his summer program and “showed great improvement.”
“Going into this season, I shrugged off all the negative prognostications about the team,” he said. “I believed that we would continue to show improvement through the season and we would have an outside chance of making a run for the playoffs. That was my goal, and I believed in it.”
During last month’s school board meeting, Hodges said he provided the board members with letters of support he received from his players and parents after they learned of his dismissal.
The board, however, voted unanimously (4-0) to accept Athletic Director Johnson’s suggested termination of the coach. Board member Susan Webster was absent from the meeting.