SECOND IN A SERIES
This summer, head coaches from all 28 Oahu high school varsity football teams are being asked to recount their football playing days.
One coach who has already been interviewed for this multi-part series pointed out what he thinks may be the value of this endeavor:
“A lot of times, you only hear about coaches when they’re getting released or are having a special season. It’s super hard to have a special season, so this should shed more light on them as people and their journey of when they were student-athletes. It’s going to bring more respect to the people who are doing this job. They didn’t all of a sudden become a high school coach because they coached Pop Warner. These guys have gone through it all, they’ve run the gamut of experiences.”
Some made it to the NFL. Others went to big colleges. Still others went the small-college route. They started as young’uns and got the bug, falling in love with football and taking pride in passing on their knowledge.
Along with the coaches’ look-back at their football-playing pasts, they also give their outlook on where their programs are at heading into the 2019 season.
COACH JOHN HAO AND THE 2019 CASTLE KNIGHTS
John Hao was a defensive end in sixth grade, playing for the Kaimuki Eagles.
Thanks to his perseverance and what amounts to more than a nudge by Vinny Passas, Hawaii’s quarterback sensei, he has come a long, long, long way since then.
“I was one of the bigger kids during that age and played there one or two years before I moved to the Kapahulu Raiders, where I played defensive end and quarterback,” Hao said.
When it came time for high school, Hao thought about going to Damien, but chose Saint Louis for convenience. It was right down the road, so he didn’t need to take a bus to Damien.
“I was not an all-star football player at that time,” he said. “I played baseball more since I was 5 all the way to 12th grade. But I went up to Saint Louis and had fun. I was the intermediate quarterback and a sophomore JV quarterback.”
That’s when there was a transformation, via Passas, that changed his life and turned him into a two-time (1989 and 1990) starting Oahu Prep Bowl championship quarterback with the Crusaders.
“At the end of sophomore year, there were four kids brought up for the last game of the varsity season. The following year, my junior year, I ended up coming in when the starter, Mike Maiava, struggled. I ended up doing pretty well. I didn’t have Michael Vick‘s arm. I was more like a Joe Montana — just enough (arm strength) to throw 45, 50 yards and I knew when to throw it and where to throw it.
“I needed a lot of training, so I started with Vinny on weekends, just he and I. He had me working on footwork, body language, hip, shoulders, release point, eyes — mainly the eyes. Once I got used to that, going into my junior year, all those things helped. I wasn’t super athletic. I just had something attached to my shoulder that was pretty good. I wasn’t Tua (Tagovailoa) or Marcus Mariota. I could read a defense, anticipate routes, anticipate defenders, very good at using my eyes, looking one way and throwing the other. I was going against guys like Agenhart Ellis and Clint Kuboyama. I had to use other abilities to overcome their athleticism.”
Hao hammered home the training part with Passas.
“One on one,” he said. “He and I. Every single weekend. Throwing the ball over the cross bar, footwork, drops, technique, chalk talk, watching videos. He pounded football into me.”
Hao felt fortunate to be on the same squad as receivers Kaipo McGuire and Henry Pilanca, defensive lineman Sili Malepeai, defensive end Troy Bailey, offensive lineman Roy Maafala, and running backs Tupu Alualu and Pulou Tata.
“That team shut out six or eight teams,” he said. “We were pretty good. They made the offense look good — when no one is scoring against us.”
For Hao, looking back, choosing Hawaii to go to college was both a mistake and a blessing.
“I had trouble transforming from passing to a triple-option team,” he said. “I did not have the guidance of anyone telling me that UH was not a good fit for my skills. But I had been watching Garrett Gabriel and figured that maybe we’d be throwing it more.
“It wasn’t a bad decision, but I did struggle in later years. I played half the year as a senior.”
Hao, however, went on to play in Europe.
“I went to the Phil Cunningham combine in Dallas and did OK,” he said. “Didn’t do great. Got a phone call from an agent telling me that teams might wanted to look at me. About 10 to 15 teams in Europe sent contracts. I wound up playing for four months in Finland. I had an apartment, a car, free food and a paycheck at age 22 or 23. Not too shabby.”
Hao’s team won all of its games against the other Finland teams and went on to play against teams from Sweden and Germany.
“I tore my hamstring in half, the contract was cut and at that point the ball I didn’t think was in my court,” he said. “Then I had a daughter after that right when I came back. I was black and blue from my okole to my calf. The hamstring was completely torn in half.”
Passas was the one who got Hao into coaching.
“He said, ‘Hey why not come up to Saint Louis and coach?’ ” Hao said about the invitation. “It sounded great, but at the same time I didn’t think I was done as a player. I played in the very first indoor league in Hawaii. The first two weeks in, I blew out my knee, cutting one way and it went the other. I had reconstruction surgery, a third surgery on my knee. That’s when I reevaluated and hung it up, put the jerseys away and started my coaching career.”
Hao has been coaching for 22 years. He was an assistant with Saint Louis until Cal Lee took a break after the 2001 season. He also was an assistant at Kapolei for a year before returning to Saint Louis as a quarterbacks and receivers coach. He was the Saint Louis head coach in 2008 and ’09 and then had coaching stints under David Stant at Kamehameha and Vavae Tata at Kahuku.
Hao is starting his third year as the head man at Castle.
“My highlight is being under Vinny Passas and Cal,” Hao said. “Vinny brought something out of me that I don’t think anybody else could have. He repped the hell out of my weaknesses and turned them into strengths. Today, my eyes are trained to read coverages like the back of my hand.
“In college, my highlight is being humbled early. I went through a lot of mistakes. I came out of high school being a top quarterback not knowing anything about the triple option. That’s my downfall, my decision-making. From pure passing to pure running. In my eyes, that was foolish. But I had the opportunity to play in Hawaii and loved playing in Hawaii. It’s a brotherhood being a UH graduate. I was humbled many times, but I was also part of the 1992 season and got to enjoy that Holiday Bowl win as part of one of the greatest teams in Hawaii history.”
Hao credits former UH assistant and longtime Navy head coach Paul Johnson with teaching him the ins and outs of the running game.
“I already knew passing,” he said. “Paul is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met. He adapts on the fly.”
Hao is also proud of the fact that he and his former UH roommates — Eddie Klaneski (Damien head coach), Punahou Aina (former Damien head coach) and Agenhart Ellis (former Kamehameha assistant and current Punahou assistant) — all went on to coach.
“They’re all stellar players and coaches,” he added.
A year ago, Hao’s Knights went on to the OIA Division I championship game, where they lost to Waipahu 32-3. The Marauders went on to win the state D-I title.
“Our team goal this year is to win every game,” the coach said. “Win on both sides of the ball and special teams. We got a taste of winning and making it to the tournament. We had our ups and downs last season, but we did get our opportunity in the playoffs against Moanalua and ended up winning the game. It gave the kids something to look forward to this year.
“We want to throw for more than 300 yards a game, with 100 yards rushing and zero turnovers. Gotta set the goals as high as we possibly can. I was going to make it 200 yards passing, but we have a quarterback (junior Mana Kahoopii) who can be great. I want to set his standards and goals high.”
2019 CASTLE KNIGHTS AT A GLANCE
>> 2018 record and finish: 5-7 (4-3 OIA Division I); defeated Moanalua 28-14 in OIA D-I semifinals; lost to Waipahu 32-3 in OIA D-I championship game.
>> Head coach John Hao’s staff:
— John Hao (offensive coordinator)
— Arnubi Bruhn (defensive coordinator)
— Jordan Liilii (quarterbacks)
— Samuel Judd (assistant quarterbacks)
— Donald Fialkowski (wide receivers)
— Keoni Steinhoff (offensive line)
— Kamu Judd (offensive line)
— Cody Kim (defensive backs)
— Jordan Oue (defensive backs)
— Kawehi Zablan (linebackers)
— Ernest Aliksa (linebackers)
— Oi Williamson (defensive line)
— Keani Alapa (defensive advisor)
— Billy Pieper (defensive advisor)
>> Approximate varsity and JV numbers: 65 varsity, 40 JV
>> Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State selections returning: None
>> Honolulu Star-Advertiser All-State selections lost to graduation: Senituli Punivai (first-team utility)
>> Among 2019 key returnees: Justice Ching, Sr., DB/WR, 5-10, 175; Josiah Enos, Sr., OL, 6-4, 280; David Keanu, Jr., DL, 6-2, 200; Keanu Tilton, Sr., LB, 5-11, 240; Jonah Figueroa, Sr., WR, 5-9, 165.
>> All-time state championships: None
>> All-time Prep Bowl (1973-1999) championships: None
>> All-time OIA championships: 1 (2002, D-I)
>> 2019 conference: OIA Division I
COMING NEXT IN “GLORY DAYS”:
Part Three: Coach Eddie Klaneski and the 2019 Damien Monarchs
Previously in the series:
>> Coach Darren Johnson and the 2019 Campbell Sabers