First-year head coach Nate Kia ready for big challenge at Punahou

Punahou freshman quarterback John-Keawe Sagapolutele (16), pictured in this 2019 game, will be a junior this fall as Nate Kia enters his first season as head coach. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

The world is not as we once knew it, but Nate Kia is gladly taking the plunge.

The longtime assistant coach and former defensive coordinator entered the fray and came away as the new head football coach at Punahou. Longtime coach Kale Ane officially retired last week, and though assistant coach Leonard Lau was the interim coach in 2020, Kia is now the permanent head coach.

“I’m excited and looking forward to doing my part to push the program forward,” Kia said. “Excitement would be the best way to describe it, but there’s an awful lot of work to do. A whirlwind of work.”

Kia played at Punahou, graduated in 1992 and became a defensive end at Utah. After two seasons as a Utes graduate assistant, he moved back to Hawaii with his bride, Emmalei, a Kamehameha graduate.

“My whole family’s excited,” said Kia, who coached his son, Kahanu, at Punahou.

Kahanu Kia, a standout linebacker, will leave for college in a matter of days.

“We’re getting ready to send him out to South Bend on June 9,” Kia said of the Notre Dame recruit.

He expects to see his Buffanblu players to be busy with graduation festivities.

“After that, there’s a little break and then we pick up summer workouts shortly. A lot of our guys have been finding other ways to train They’ve been really resourceful, but it does make a difference to train with your teammates. Punahou’s weight room has been open, but with restrictions.

Then-defensive coordinator Nate Kia enjoyed a post-practice moment with some Punahou players during the exhibition spring season. Photo courtesy of Nate Kia.

The phone has been busy at Marie Louise Cleaners in Kakaako, where Kia is a manager of the family-owned small business.

“We actually do a lot of costumes for the film production down here. Wedding gowns, quite a bit of different stuff. We’ve been in the business for years. I grew up around it,” Kia said.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt in every way, from football to business.

“As a small business, we felt the brunt of COVID from all angles. We’ve gotten more appreciative of everyone who did their best through the pandemic,” he said.

The brief spring football season allowed Punahou, Kamehameha and Saint Louis enough time to have controlled scrimmages that were spirited and, yes, entertaining. Also: educational.

“We were blessed to be able, through our administration, to have spring season scrimmages. That helped tremendously, however, the effects of this year are pretty much across the board down to the youngsters and first-time Punahou players,” Kia said. “That’s for every sport, every school. That’s a challenge for all coaches. We all share the same concerns whether it’s safety for the players, getting them active, their mental health, getting the program strong and rebuilding some momentum.”

Cautious optimism is in the wind.

“We’re all more optimistic for a full season. What we were able to accomplish between schools went a long way for high school football (in Hawaii) as a blueprint path. With increased vaccinations and improving conditions, we can be back to normal high school football shortly,” Kia said.

His coaching background a short stay at Punahou in 2002 under Ane, and was followed by a hiatus that is much more common among this generation of coaches. Kia took a break when his children were born. He was outside the world of sports until Punahou boys basketball coach Darren Matsuda brought him on staff in the 2015-16 season.

“At the time, my old teammate Perry Lam convinced me to come out and help with the big men. That was fun to be back on campus and be able to give back,” Kia said.

Two years later, Ane asked Kia to join the football staff. By ’19, Kia was refocused on football as his son rose up the ranks.

“You always want to make it a better place. Coach Kale raised the bar and my son directly benefited from it,” Kia said.

Punahou has fielded a stellar, elite defensive unit in the past several seasons. Seven starters were seniors on the 2020-21 roster, including Kahanu Kia and defensive back Kilinahe Mendiola-Jensen, who signed with UNLV. With the prolific John-Keawe Sagapolutele at quarterback, it could have been a most memorable season.

The culture remains in motion.

“What’s often taken for granted is our students are known for achievement in the classroom and on the field. That’s pretty constant. These guys are wired to achieve and push. That’s the culture that the players and students create,” Kia said. “Maybe we don’t have the biggest guys sometimes, but it’s a very specific culture that we have here.”

Kia won’t announce his staff anytime soon.

“We’re going through that process right now. We definitely want to build on the positives that we have established. It’s not really a continuation from the last (2019) season. We did have some spring practices and scrimmages to start evaluating people,” he said.

Like many coaches statewide, Kia has modified his perspective. More than a year out of sports, most student-athletes aren’t better, if at all, than they were in March of 2020.

“It’s kind of like Thanos and that whole blip, and everyone is back,” Kia said, referring to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “It’s a restart for everyone. Everyone goes back to the beginning of the game board right here.”

Punahou and other schools are also in a unique scenario. Because there were almost official ILH sports in the fall and winter, those athletes are eligible to play elsewhere if and when they transfer, even from ILH school to ILH school, rather than sit out the mandatory season.

“I’m unaware of any benefit we have to that. I can’t speak to admission stuff. I only know who we had in the spring,” Kia said.

That doesn’t mean longtime friends or alums with young children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews haven’t wanted to approach Kia with questions about transferring. They simply have not. Yet.

“I’m pretty much at home all the time. The only time I’m out is at Sam’s Club or Costco,” he said. “With a mask on.”

Kia stays out of it, running the family shop and coaching. He spent some years with the Metro Tigers when his son was younger. At Punahou, it was a perfect fit, to no surprise.

“Our school does a good job of finding the right fit for the school in the application process. It has its own different culture. Regardless of athletic prowess, whoever referenced you or pointed you in this direction, or recommended you, they’ve done a good job of recommending what is a great fit to make each individual class,” Kia said. Whether they’re freshmen or coming in any entry year, evaluating how they’ll do in our environment has been a key thing.”

That process has worked well for Punahou athletics, including football.

“Each school has its own culture and fit for every student. I have 20 nieces or nephews who have attended or graduated from Kamehameha,” Kia said. “It’s been a fantastic school for them, a terrific fit. Working with youth athletics for many years, knowing how many kids I’ve coached who have gone to Saint Louis, probably more than any school. Punahou, Kamehameha, Roosevelt, Farrington. It’s always good to see them doing well and having success,” he said.


  1. ??? June 2, 2021 5:33 pm

    Coach LAU got the straight up SHAFT from Punahou!
    He’s a great coach, a better man and he helped the team through a Pandemic & kept them focused on school & football while they investigated the former coach/AD. There is NO reason he shouldn’t have been named Punahou Football Head Coach after his interim status.
    The only thing I can think of is he’s a Crusader alumni & I hope that didn’t play a factor in it? “SAD”

  2. !!! June 2, 2021 11:22 pm

    Lau voluntarily stepped down ya genius.

  3. To Da Hale June 2, 2021 11:25 pm

    Could it be possible that after being the interim head coach, he decided not to pursue the permanent head coaching position?

  4. ILove Hawaii June 3, 2021 7:41 am

    Is that so?
    Say’s who?

  5. ??? June 3, 2021 1:22 pm

    #2 you tell me?
    I’m pretty sure this article would of stated that Coach Lau didn’t want to pursue the job if that was the case.

  6. ASSume June 4, 2021 10:44 am

    Why would Lau state that he didn’t want it? Maybe he realized after being the coach he rather be assistant and let Kia take over? Man you guys just love to ASSume

  7. ILoveHawaii June 4, 2021 3:49 pm

    It doesnt say many things.
    That is an assumption on your part.

  8. ??? June 5, 2021 2:17 pm

    Paul, Is there anyway you could get an interview with Coach Lau about Punahou’s Head Coach decision?

  9. Coach/Fan June 5, 2021 7:28 pm

    Knowing Coach Lau personally, he will not bad-mouth anyone. I’m sure he did apply for the permanent position, but he probably won’t make mention of it. All he will do is support and back up Coach Kia as best as he can. He is a true professional.
    Me, I’m not as professional as Coach Lau. With that being said, he is way too good for Punahou.

  10. Opinion June 6, 2021 3:02 am

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Coach Lau is way too good for Punahou. Could this coaching decision possibly have been made months ago? New HC was busy traveling with his son to camps and workouts on the mainland. No real time to commit to an off season weight program and small group workouts, especially during the pandemic. Puns solution, use one of the most genuine straight up guys you’ll ever meet. Have Coach Lau take the reigns while other candidates take care of other priorities. Sad to think, but very possible. With Punahou, wouldn’t be surprised at all.

  11. Kinipopo June 6, 2021 11:04 am

    I’m far from a Punz fan! But this is my opinion. I would’ve thought that Coach Lau was always right by Coach Ane’s side. I believe he would’ve kept the program going the same way it has been. It has been a great program under Ane. It will be interesting to see which way it goes now. The hardest thing to swallow ks the fact that Coach Lau stepped up and during this crappy situation of the pandemic he gave the kids hope. Best of luck to him weather he stays or not.

  12. Bu-Lyah June 6, 2021 10:15 pm

    I wonder if ??? is Coach Lau…. Just kidding. Overall tough decision by the school, but only time will tell if this was a good decision or not. Coach Lau will be fine, will he still be on staff or will he find another coaching position else where as a possible HC? We shall see. Hopefully football has a season

  13. Disapointed Pun October 29, 2021 9:43 am

    Now that Punahou’s season is over, the results speak for themselves. Perhaps Lau was the better choice. Punahou could have done better. The recruiting is blatantly obvious and not producing the results that were expected. Homegrown players should not be disregarded for promising “recruits”. I hope Punahou will restore integrity in the football program someday. Coach Lau may have been a step in that direction but we will never know. Sad to say.

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