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Local

Suit details campaign vs. ex-coach

DIXON -- After nine seasons on the court at Dixon High School, former basketball coach Steve Sandholm is taking his most vocal detractors to civil court, and he is asking for more than $3 million in damages resulting from what his lawyers contend was an organized campaign to defame him.

The 47-page lawsuit filed Friday afternoon in Lee County Circuit Court takes aim at the core members of the "Save Dixon Sports Committee," and the parent company of local radio station WIXN and its general manager, Al Knickrehm.

They would not give any comment Saturday.

Sandholm was effectively fired as coach Wednesday, but remains employed as the athletic director for Dixon Public Schools.

The suit spells out in eight counts how Sandholm believes the defendants engaged in defamation of character and invasion of privacy and interfered with his economic gain. The defendants have 30 days from last Friday to file a response.

According to court documents, committee members were not satisfied with the Board of Education's initial decision to keep Sandholm as coach, so they "entered into a campaign to publicly defame and discredit Steve in an attempt to have the Dixon School Board reverse its decision to remove Steve as both head basketball coach and athletic director."

By doing so, the suit alleges Sandholm has suffered damages, including the loss of salary from his head coaching position, which affects his pension, as well as pain and suffering, public humiliation, and damage to his health, including increased blood pressure.

The suit seeks $50,000 in actual damages, $3 million in punitive damages and costs related to the trial.

"He's looking to clear his name. He's looking to make sure these people know they can't accuse someone like this without ramifications," said Stephen Fieweger, the Moline-based attorney representing the ex-coach.

Fieweger said he's dealt with this kind of case before, but not in this scope.

"I've never seen a coach and athletic director attacked like this before."

He continued, "That's what's reckless. That's what's malicious about his case. These people had their ax to grind for whatever reason and made false statements about him," Fieweger said. "What's more troubling is the local radio station buys this as fact and then republishes it and gives no equal time."

Petitions and Web pages

Most of those listed as defendants, including Richard and Ardis Kuecker, Mike Venier, Glen Hughes, Dan Burke, David Deets, Mary Mahan-Deatherage and Tim Oliver, are parents of current and former basketball players.

Some, if not all, were in attendance at the March 19 meeting where Richard Kuecker -- who authored an unflattering portrait of Sandholm in a letter to the editor published in some local papers -- delivered a petition with 150 signatures calling for Sandholm's ouster.

The board, instead, outlined six areas of Sandholm's conduct that could be improved, authored a rough draft of an athletic code of conduct and proposed working with Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization that conducts workshops on relationships in athletics.

Within days, the defendants formed the "Save Dixon Sports Committee," which the suit paints as an organized, vocal group that acted in a concentrated campaign against Sandholm.

The group created and publicized a Web site, www.savedixonsports.com, and submitted a letter to each board member calling for the district to investigate Sandholm.

Committee members also wrote letters to the editor, met to discuss strategy and continued to post more information on the Internet.

The complaint also names Richard Kuecker as the person who videotaped Sandholm coaching and posted four videos on youtube.com.

The day after the April 23 school board meeting, when members voted 6-0 to not renew Sandholm's contract, the committee posted an official response on its Web site that was simply signed "the committee."

When asked Friday why the board removed Sandholm, Brown linked the decision with the publicity created by the petition, the Web postings, letters, etc.

"... I thought (it) would be difficult if not impossible for him to function in that environment," he said. "It's not fair to him or his players, certainly."

The complaint clearly connects the committee's activities with the decision to remove Sandholm as coach, saying, "... the cumulative effect of the constant negative smear campaign by these defendants proximately resulted in a termination of Steve as head basketball coach job when the school board changed its position and voted on April 23 to remove Sandholm despite the fact that no new facts concerning Steve had been presented to the board between March 19 and April 23."

Fieweger believes the use of the Internet by the Save Dixon Schools Committee will play a significant factor in the case.

"It's huge. I don't know if Steve would have had as much of a complaint if these people limited themselves to going to the school board. They decided this was their crusade and made sure everybody in the world knew about it."

As of Saturday morning, the content on www.savedixonsports.com content was removed.

On-air attacks

The second prong of attack came through the local radio station, WIXN-AM 1460. The general manager, Al Knickrehm, had a relationship with Sandholm that went sour a few months before the lawsuit and influenced the actions he took against the former coach, according to the complaint.

The string of events started before the school year. WIXN traditionally broadcasted all boys home and away games and all girls home games. Sandholm also took part in a weekly Friday morning broadcast.

That changed in November, when Knickrehm decided not to broadcast all of the girls home games and boys away games. Soon after, Steve Marko, announcer for the Friday show, asked Sandholm to talk about the change on the radio.

At that time, Sandholm "made recommendations to sell the sports broadcasts to local businesses in a different manner than which WIXN had traditionally sold such broadcasts," according to the complaint. "As a result of the comments made by Sandholm, Knickrehm became upset and accused Steve of trying to run his station and canceled Steve's weekly Friday morning radio show," the lawsuit states.

When public support started to coalesce against Sandholm, Knickrehm took an active role. He attended the March 19 school board meeting, and two days later invited three members of the Save Dixon Sports Committee on his weekly show.

Knickrehm then allowed a "public safety announcement," containing statements from Sandholm's detractors. The announcement was broadcast hourly on all three stations -- WIXN-AM 1460, WRCV-FM 101.7 and WSEY-FM 95.7 -- from March 24 to April 6.

Fieweger contends Knickrehm violated Federal Communications Commission rules requiring him to give Sandholm notification of the time, date and identification of the broadcast; a tape, script or accurate summary of the broadcast and PSA; and an offer of a reasonable opportunity to respond on the air within one week.

The broadcast and PSA also were posted on the committee's Web site.

"We want to let the public know it wasn't just opinion these people were trying to express. They were expressly stating (Sandholm) was a poor performer in his job as athletic director," Fieweger said.

Documents of support

While the committee members made their voices heard loud and clear, Sandholm and Fieweger collected practically every word written or uttered.

Fieweger filed more than 50 pages of letters, petitions, Web site postings and links on www.savedixonsports.com, public statements, screen shots of the YouTube videos and transcripts of radio broadcasts concerning Sandholm from February until last Friday.

"There should be no dispute about these statements being made because they were broadcasted on www.savedixonsports.com," Fieweger said.

That's not all.

To bolster Sandholm's argument that he was a good coach and school official, the supporting documents, include:

• Copies of Sandholm's performance evaluations by Grady since 2005.

• An Illinois High School Association report from referee Robert Schiffbauer about a varsity basketball game on Jan. 11 that says, "Coach Sandholm and his team's conduct and effort during the game was what high school athletics should be."

• An undated letter of support signed by all Dixon High coaches for Sandholm that was collected by his assistant, Kenda Bailey. It says, "We realized with the recent events that our positions, along with any district employee, could be at risk if the present parental outcry is allowed to continue. To comply with their demands in order to silence them would only harm the delicate balance we now strive to sustain."

Despite the counterattack, Fieweger said the effort to restore Sandholm's reputation may not be enough.

"That's the problem with defamation cases. People say these things and it's awfully hard to come back through 30 years of a career in a manner that really reflects what he's done," Fieweger said.

The Steve Sandholm File

Age: 57

Experience: Teacher, basketball coach and athletic director for 33 years in Forreston, Rochelle, Manlius, Knoxville, Mount Carroll and Dixon.

Current job: Athletic director. Manages high school athletics, oversees extracurricular activity funding, sports discipline, schedules and staff. It will be his job to interview and hire his coaching replacement.

Pay: About $85,000 a year, not counting the $6,000 coaching stipend.

Retirement: Plans to retire at the end of the 2010-2011 school year.

Highlight: Led Dixon to back-to-back 19-win seasons, something achieved only in two previous seasons in the 89-year history of the school.

Timeline of events surround the case

Early February 2008

* Richard Kuecker, Ardis Kuecker, Glen Hughes, Michael Venier, Tim Oliver, Dan Burke, David Deets and Mary Mahan-Deatherage begin to approach Principal Mike Grady and Superintendent Jim Brown to complain about Sandholm's performance.

Feb. 28

* Richard Kuecker writes a letter alleging Sandholm "bullied" players, and calls for Grady, Brown and the Board of Education to investigate Sandholm's conduct.

March 19

* Richard Kuecker presents a petition to fire Sandholm to the School Board, and addresses the board in closed session.

* The board emerges with three suggestions, submitted by Brown: A list of six areas of Sandholm's conduct that could be improved; a rough draft of an athletic code of conduct to be followed by all coaches, athletes, parents and other fans; and a call for the district to work with Positive Coaching Alliance, a nonprofit organization that conducts workshops on relationships in athletics.

March 21

* The Kueckers, Hughes, Venier, Oliver, Burke, Deets and Mahan-Deatherage form the Save Dixon Sports Committee and create a Web site, www.savedixonsports.com, to air their grievances.

* The committee submits a letter to each board member calling for an investigation.

* Al Knickrehm, general manager of the NRG Media Dixon stations, WIXN-AM 1460, WRCV, 101.7 and WSEY 95.7, invites Richard Kuecker, Venier, and Hughes to appear on Knickrehm's WIXN weekly radio show. They discuss their discontent with the results of the meeting.

March 24

* The committee posts the on-air discussion from WIXN on www.savedixonsports.com until April 10.

* Knickrehm, through WIXN, begins to air a "public service announcement" containing statements from supporters of the petition to oust Sandholm. The announcement is broadcast hourly, every day, on all three stations.

March 26

* A letter by Ardis Kuecker is published by Sauk Valley Newspapers. In it, she says Sandholm has power conflicts with fellow coaches.

April 16

* Knickrehm tells a reporter that Sandholm "had absolutely ripped the management of WIXN on its own radio station."

April 23

* The Dixon School Board votes 6-0 not to renew Sandholm's contract as coach.

April 25

* Attorneys file a defamation suit in Lee County Circuit Court against the members of the committee, Knickrehm and NRG Media LLC.

* All content from the www.savedixonsports. com Web site has been deleted.

Reach Malinda Osborne at (815) 284-2222, (815) 625-3600 or (800) 798-4085, ext. 526.

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