The Interscholastic League of Honolulu is as competitive, intense and, in some ways, cut-throat, as any Hawaii-based league imaginable.
And that’s just in academics.
Now put the most heralded prep coach in island history back in the saddle at Saint Louis, and football brains across the state might just explode. With Cal Lee back at Saint Louis (see Dave Reardon’s breaking story this afternoon on the Star-Advertiser site), that adds to some pretty huge football mind power in the ILH: Punahou’s Kale Ane, who guided the Buffanblu to the last three ILH titles and a perfect season last fall en route to the state championship; Kamehameha’s Doug Cosbie, the former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro tight end; and now, Lee, who led the Crusaders to 14 Prep Bowl titles and one state championship before stepping away in 2001. That’s just in Division I. Then there’s Wendell Look at D-II powerhouse ‘Iolani — and a staff that includes former Saint Louis head coach and defensive guru Delbert Tengan, plus quarterbacks coach Joel Lane — as well as longtime Pac-Five coach Kip Botelho and Damien coach Eddie Klaneski, the former Rainbow Warrior defensive back.
Old- and not-so-old timers remember the Saint Louis dynasty well. The newer generation may not be so versed on prep football history. Timmy Chang set a national career touchdown passing record before going on to a record-breaking career at UH. There was Chris Fuamatu-Ma‘afala, who went on to a career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Olin Kreutz, an All-Pro offensive lineman with the Chicago Bears. So much talent went up to Kalaepohaku, it basically drained programs elsewhere.
A refresher for the keiki. Cal Lee was an assistant to brother Ron at Kaiser when they transformed the program into a Prep Bowl winner in 1979. They brought their system to Saint Louis, where Cal Lee was already a P.E. teacher, and they made history from that point on.
The ups and downs of football at a prominent Hawaii high school program are real. All-State left tackle Fred Ulu-Perry and his teammates were stunned by the news recently of losing their coach, Matt Wright. Now that Lee is back in charge, optimism has returned, even though this generation of athletes isn’t familiar with the veteran coach.
“I just know I heard a lot of stories about him and their wins, their championships. I never did meet him in person. I used to see him at the University of Hawaii camps,” said Ulu-Perry, a 6-foot-2, 310-pound junior. “We’ll just have to adapt to the new system, if we have a new system.”
Ulu-Perry, who also plays basketball, has scholarship offers from Hawaii and Washington State. He once looked for dynasty-era Saint Louis Crusaders footage online.
“I’ve only seen one video on YouTube, from 1994. (See the video below.) I watched that over 10 times already,” he said. “It should be exciting.”
Lee plans to hit the ground running.
“All we gotta do is make the kids as successful as they can be. I’m no miracle worker, but we’ll work with the kids and have them commit and work as hard as they can, and we’ll see what happens,” he said. “It was the same thing at Kaiser.”
When he left Saint Louis in ’01, it was Fuamatu-Ma‘afala who was among those who praised his former coach.
“He’s a great person in addition to being a legendary coach,” Fuamatu-Ma’afala said. “He doesn’t yell or scream. But he does have a little swagger that gave us confidence, that little edge. He doesn’t have to say much to have a big impact.”
Dave’s breaking story today, and my story in tomorrow’s edition of the Star-Advertiser, will have a lot of the historical highlights achieved by Lee. He had a lot of enthusiasm after meeting with Saint Louis administrators this afternoon, but left Kalani with some mixed emotions.
“I totally enjoyed my two years at Kalani. They listen. Like everywhere else, they listen and they show that respect and they had fun,” Lee said. “We had some success. They were committed to doing the things we had to do. I talked to a few of them when I left, hugged them. It was kinda of sad, but you do the things you’ve got to do.”
He’s now 67, but the fire is still burning strong.
“I’m looking forward to working with the kids, getting to know them, instilling discipline, respect, loyalty. When they come off the field, they know no one player wins a game. Be humble when you win and be very gracious when you lose, it’s just a game,” Lee said. “It teaches you character. What you do on the field you do off the field.”
Lee is aware that Punahou has drawn top talent from across the island. He’s seems comfortable with building the Saint Louis program back up.
“I’m looking forward to working with the kids, getting to know them. I heard Olin helped out with the weight room,” Lee said, noting Kreutz’s role as a donor.
“The confidence we get from lifting weights, you needed that because we didn’t start with size. Sean Nakakura was a 160-pound nose guard, but every year, he was the strongest player on our team,” he said of the former All-State nose guard. “Those are the type of things you have to have because you don’t have size.”
In the 13 years away from Saint Louis, Lee said he’s enjoyed learning from his peers.
“I’ve learned. I was at the University (of Hawaii) learning with June (Jones) and different coaches. I always want to learn and keep learning. If you stop learning, you stop growing. I had a wonderful experience and I can’t thank June enough for hiring me,” Lee said.
“We’ve added a little bit and tweaked the run-and-shoot a little bit, but we’ll throw the ball, a passing team that will throw the ball. We’re not going to fool anybody. We may not be as talented as we were before, but that’s where guys step up. Be committed, to work and it’s already started. You can’t wait for June to start getting ready for football,” said Lee, who was an NAIA All-American linebacker at Willamette (Ore.).
“We’ll line up in the 3-4 and have different packages, even 4-3, too. Look at Seattle, gollleee. That defense dominated. You watch these guys, defense is about reaction. You know what your assignment is, you gotta play without thinking. I’m antsy to meet the kids.”
As for the ‘R’ word, Lee knows eyes will be on Saint Louis and every one of the state’s powerhouse teams. The appeal of playing for Cal and Ron Lee began in the 1970s and is unlikely to stop now. The ILH has by-laws against recruiting, but as with most programs, it will be parents who will reach out to him and the school. Cal Lee has already begun to hear from alumni.
“A lot of them are my former players. One of them said, ‘My son is sixth grade and I want him to go to Saint Louis.’ It was a time they played and enjoyed.”
He’s as pumped up as any coach I can remember interviewing in the past year. Football is still in Cal Lee’s blood.
“What am I gonna do,” he asked. “I hate golf.”