(The shorter version of this story was published this morning in the Star-Advertiser.)
Ask Tehani Fiatoa about coaching.
She’ll tell you it’s a labor of love. At the prep level, it’s rarely about money, at least in Hawaii.
The girls volleyball coach also tell you what she thinks of one-year contracts. For Fiatoa, better known as Tehani Miyashiro during her playing days at the University of Hawaii, it’s not just the concept of a one-year agreement that has been in mind recently. Despite a successful season at Kahuku, she was required to re-apply for her position — an unusual situation that rarely happens at high schools.
“I felt, in a way, unappreciated. Questioning our validity (as coaches) in a letter from the principal (Pauline Masaniai). She said she wanted to start fresh with coaches,” she said.
Fiatoa, married with children, opted to step away rather than have to prove herself all over again.
“I do not regret my decision. I talked to my family, my husband about it. We felt like there are other things I could be doing. I put everything into it. I tried to set up the girls in my program to get ready for college whether they play or not,” she said.
Masaniai wasn’t happy with that outcome.
“It’s not that I had a plan (to remove coaches), but I wanted to see who else was out there for all positions,” Masaniai said on Monday. “That wasn’t the message. I apologize to her. I haven’t had a chance to speak with her.”
Athletic Director Gillian Yamagata gave her very positive marks in the post-season evaluation.
“I got 4s and 5s from her,” Fiatoa said. “I walked out of there very satisfied. My efforts were confirmed. Then to be told to re-apply, that’s just saying, ‘You’re fired.’ ”
Though it’s common for public schools to keep coaches as “casual hires” on a year-to-year basis, it’s rare that an entire athletic program’s coaches be forced to endure the entire application and interview process again.
The notion of year-to-year service isn’t new. Tommy Lasorda managed the Los Angeles Dodgers for decades on an annual re-commitment and never left the organization. But Lasorda was paid well, commensurate with other MLB managers of his era.
At the high school level, it’s a sacrifice of time, sweat and effort with players and parents and, sometimes, with a community that can be fickle about its coaches. The actual pay is normally barely enough to cover gasoline costs.
Masaniai brought her vision to the school when she arrived recently. The fact that she moved quickly to have fall-sport coaches re-apply led many in the community to believe that she wanted to replace football coach Reggie Torres.
The longtime wrestling, judo and football coach — in his third decade of service to the school — did re-apply.
“We had no idea of knowing who would apply,” Masaniai said. “We wanted to open it up and we ended up having many qualified candidates.”
Last week, the school announced that Lee Leslie, a resident of Idaho, was hired. Leslie confirmed his hiring by returning a call to a Star-Advertiser reporter, but after the breaking news story ran, Masaniai was disappointed with the reporter. She had wanted to inform Torres, a high school classmate who was 75-14 as varsity football coach, before the report was published.
“It takes time to contact everybody who applied,” she said. “There was a lot going on that afternoon. I wish I could’ve talked to Reggie first instead of him finding out about it (in the media).”
The community, as well as current and former administrators across the state, had been stunned by the re-application mandate. The hiring of a new coach, especially one who is out-of-state, was perplexing to many. Torres brought a toned-down approach to Kahuku football, eschewing the more excitable elements of the program — loud T-shirts, for example — in favor of an old-school, humility-based mindset. RedRaiders4Lyfe was gone. Big Red had returned.
Early on, he faced major criticism from some in the community at one point — a petition for his ouster circulated — even though he guided the Red Raiders to a state football title in his first season. But by the end, the three-time state champion had the support of most in the community. Kahuku’s reputation for good sportsmanship was practically written in stone.
But Masaniai had other ideas. The outflow of some talented student-athletes from the North Shore to an elite, prestigious private school like Punahou appears to have been a driving force. In her statement on the hiring of Leslie, Masaniai penned:
“Kahuku High is creating the whole package – academic, extracurricular, cultural, arts – so parents don’t have to look beyond their own community.”
“Only a parent can know what’s best for their child and the opportunities. I want to give them an option, that there is opportunity at Kahuku High School,” Masaniai said, going just short of mentioning Punahou. “The private schools are doing what they feel they have to do to develop their programs.”
So Masaniai did what an ambitious principal would do. She exercised her options and used what is perhaps the most valuable tool to any administration: she altered the personnel of the existing staff.
But what about successful coaches who are removed, so to speak?
“Coaches are casual hires. There’s no protection, like a substitute teacher,” OIA executive director Raymond Fujino said. “Technically, it’s a re-application every year, but the schools don’t have to go through that process. As an AD, it’s not easy. I don’t think they want to do this every year. Most principals delegate that responsibility to the AD. The AD recommends the name to the principal.”
Other veteran educators shared their thoughts.
“That’s up to the principal and AD, but normally they don’t ask for re-applying,” longtime Aiea football coach and counselor Wendell Say said. “I was shocked when I found out about Reggie. He’s a good guy and he does a good job. I know a lot of people in Kahuku are vocal, but I don’t see why he was removed.”
Say pointed to a similar situation nearly two decades ago when then-Waipahu football coach Sam Delos Reyes, one of the top coaches in the state, was not retained.
“He still wanted to coach,” Say recalled. “He was forced out at Waipahu. He wanted to form a coaches union.”
Delos Reyes is now an athletic director at Campbell. The emotions of that time have subsided.
“I wasn’t forced out. The administration wanted a new direction. We understand our contracts are year to year. Mine was not renewed,” he said. “For whatever reason why, I support that.”
The natural progression for some is move up from coaching to administration. For others, it’s the end of the line, a fine stretch of time working for the communities they love.
“A coach like Reggie will strive for championships and his kids reach college. All new coaches strive for these goals,” Delos Reyes said. “Their mission is basically the same. It’s not unusual for change to take place.”
He pointed out that coaches aren’t completely vulnerable.
“If something goes wrong and we did the correct thing, the protection is that they (DOE) will go to bat for us,” Delos Reyes said.
Still, the requirement of re-applying is a necessary evil for many new principals and athletic directors.
“It’s a tool. If you don’t have it, you don’t have control,” he said.
It’s something that netted the Red Raiders an accomplished coach in Leslie, who understands to some extent the furor that has erupted on the North Shore.
“It’s more of putting the AD in the driver’s seat. Nobody’s set on any long-term contract,” he said by telephone on Friday. “(Masaniai) made it clear to me that she wanted someone more on the academic side so the kids can raise their ACT scores and more of them go to college. Some of the kids have been going to private schools and the principal wants Kahuku to get caught up.”
Using that net, however, has its costs. Fiatoa’s spirit is not the same.
“It might be a blessing in disguise,” she said. “Unfortunately, today’s society is influenced by angry parents. The way they interact with teams and coaches is very different from when I was growing up. I see it a lot. I talk with my colleagues (at other schools). It actually prevents a lot of coaches from coaching. Who wants to deal with that?”
In her eyes, there is a broken trust.
“The administration is not taking care of the people who put the effort in.”