Two days before Chuck Graham was fired as basketball coach at Gainesville High School, top officials texted about the upcoming decision.
Adam Lindsey, the school system’s athletic director texted Superintendent Jeremy Williams: “Are you available this afternoon?? Would like to touch base about basketball so we can make a decision.”
Williams responded: “Just finished up a call with the audit department. Want me to come there?”
“Your call,” Lindsey said.
“Does (Gainesville High Principal) Jamie (Green) need to be involved,” Williams said.
“Can be,” Lindsey said. “We talked (this) morning. I know where he stands.”
“Come on up here then,” Williams said.
Text messages and emails obtained by The Times in an open records request include behind-the-scenes conversations about the decision to fire Graham and clarify the conditions of Graham’s reinstatement.
Graham was fired as the head coach Feb. 18 but was hired a few weeks later following an uproar from the community, including a packed school board meeting in which some community members blamed Adam Lindsey, the school system’s athletic director, and some alleged the decision was motivated by racism. Officials denied those allegations, noting they also let go of two White coaches this year. Graham is Black.
District officials suggested they fired Graham for performing poorly as a coach, but they soon realized that his standing in the community transcended X’s and O’s.
“You always want to win, don't get me wrong,” Williams previously told The Times. “But I think we saw through the conversations that relationships trump any conversation related to wins and losses for now.”
The system offered to reinstate Graham “because it was the right thing to do,” Superintendent Jeremy Wiliams said. “There was never a doubt about Chuck's impact on people of all ages.”
The Times made numerous attempts to reach Graham. He did not return calls or text messages for comment.
Emails between Williams and Graham outline the agreement that brought Graham back.
Graham requested a job as a graduation coach at the high school, but he will instead be a physical education teacher. He is currently a graduation coach at Gainesville Middle School. A new assistant coach will be hired for both the girls and boys high school basketball teams, and he will receive a requested shooting machine, according to emails.
In Graham’s requests he also asked for an annual stipend of $35,000. That is more than three times his current stipend of $10,000, which is paid in addition to his annual salary of around $60,000.
Williams agreed to a $15,000 stipend. He said the pay raise is not exclusive to Graham. The high school girls basketball coach will receive the same stipend, and Williams said they had decided on the increase well before Graham’s firing.
Graham is also getting about a $3,000 pay raise as part of a standard step increase based on his education and experience level. The increase is not related to his reinstatement, Williams said. Additionally, Graham is set to receive the $2,000 increase allotted for teachers in Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed budget.
Taken together, Graham’s total salary will increase from about $70,000 to around $80,000.
Records also included text messages to board members in the days surrounding Graham’s termination.
In a text to all five school board members at 8:07 a.m. Feb. 18, two days after Williams and Lindsey spoke, Williams said: “FYI - We will be notifying both basketball coaches today that we will be going in a different direction. As usual, we will give them the weekend to determine how they want it communicated, which is typically them stepping down.”
Vice Chair Willie Mitchell responded with a thumbs up emoji.
“Thanks for the update,” Board Chair Andy Stewart said.
“Thank you for letting us know,” board member Kris Nordholz said.
At 9:29 a.m., Lindsey texted Green and Williams, telling them that he just met with Graham and girls coach Alan Griffin.
“How’d it go,” Green asked.
Lindsey didn’t immediately respond.
The next text came from Green at 3:31 p.m. He said: “Chuck’s message, ‘I’m sorry to tell you but coach got fired today.’”
“Nice,” Lindsey said. When The Times asked Lindsey what he meant by that, he said he was being sarcastic.
“It was more disappointed that that's how he chose to handle it,” he said.
In other words, Graham wasn’t taking the typical route of “stepping down,” and officials said they suspected at that point that there might be some blowback from the community.
A couple of hours later, Williams said: “Just got off the phone with Willie (Mitchell). He’s hearing that we fired Chuck from the district. I corrected his information.”
“Geez,” Lindsey said.
“They’re not able to separate the man from the coach. Two very different conversations,” Williams said.
“No doubt,” Lindsey said.
“Two VERY different conversations,” Green said.
Graham was fired as a coach but not as an employee of the school system, which explains why the school board did not vote on the action. Even if he had not been reinstated, Graham would have been allowed to continue as a middle school graduation coach, Williams said.
“I'd like to thank you for the opportunities over the last two weeks to engage in conversations surrounding the basketball program and coaching position,” Graham said in a March 4 email to Williams. “After reviewing everything with my family, we are excited to accept the position to stay in the community we love with the agreed upon conditions.”
Three days later at a Gainesville school board meeting March 7, Williams announced that Graham had accepted reinstatement.
“We’re excited about kind of closing that chapter and opening a new one, still in the same book,” Williams said. “So we’re just really excited about making sure he's got everything he needs to take our program to the next level.”