(Here’s the longer version of this morning’s story in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.)
It was months in the works, but the Oahu Interscholastic Association has made it official: transferring student-athletes will have to sit out one year.
The vote by OIA principals was 18-0 in favor of the change. Currently, a student-athlete can play immediately at another school once the transfer process, whether by moving into the district or district exception, is complete.
The new rule will require all student-athletes to sit out a minimum of one calendar year in the sport he or she previous played at the varsity level.
OIA executive director Raymond Fujino considered the change a necessity. The new rule comes with an appeals process, Fujino added. In a case where a family moves to a new district out of necessity, an appeal could be heard.
The new rule kicks in at the beginning of the 2015-16 academic year. For the most part, however, the new rule is in effect because of a rising level of transfers in one sport: football.
Football programs at Kaiser and Mililani have drawn an unusual number of transfers in recent years. The hiring of former University of Hawaii assistant coach Rich Miano spurred a large influx of football transfers during his two seasons there. Miano was a maverick, and an aggressive one at that. He said openly that he and his staff would do their best to “recruit” football players to the program, which had been struggling along in Division II.
Miano said at the time that students were transferring in to take the baccalaureate classes offered by the school.
Mililani was also drawing a large number of transfers during that time, though coach Rod York never uttered the “R” word. York, another former UH player, insisted that he never reached out to players or parents to lure them to Mililani.
With those two programs rolling up victories and collecting more talent, administrators began to ratchet up discussions about changing the transfer rule.
Miano left early this year, and the chatter around a rule change seemed to simmer down. However, things got heated up again when a Kauai student-athlete left that campus during preseason to transfer to Kaiser, where Cameron Higgins is now the head coach.
Kauai also lost two starting offensive linemen to Saint Louis in June. The number of programs that have been hit by departing transfers is another big factor in the rule change. There are families that have children attending different high schools to take advantage of better programs whether they’re sports or other extracurricular activities.
Red Raiders coach Tommy John Cox already had plans to leave coaching after the season.
“I decided awhile ago that this year is it. But when you lose your three best players, it’s kind of tough. I tried to tell these guys, if you’re good, they will find you. But nowadays, I think it’s more about the parents. They go to so many camps and get seen, I don’t know how much the regular season has a bearing on how they get recruited,” Cox said. “The high schools sell it to the parents, schools like Kaiser. We’ve lost to kids to Kaiser two years in a row.”
Cox’s program had been a dynasty in the KIF, but Kapaa took charge and won this year’s title. He doesn’t begrudge anyone who leaves.
“I never ever blame them for leaving. I give them my blessing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to end. They’re going to go.”
Kaiser and Mililani aren’t the only schools that have gained talent through the transfer process. On the West side, players have shuffled between one school to another in musical chairs style for years, but only in the last few seasons has one specific program begun to accumulate the talent to start a dynasty: Mililani.
Last year, two all-state players in the ILH were asked where they have gone if private school was not an option. Both didn’t hesitate to answer: Mililani. Neither had been asked to go there. Both liked the “winning tradition” at the school.
Mililani has also been, more or less, a regular cast member of televised high school football for years.
Other questions will follow in wake of the OIA’s vote. Currently, students can transfer to another school for specific activities — say, to participate in marching band at Moanalua or Mililani. Will the league and DOE lock down on them, too?
It’s an interesting dynamic in action. While some ILH schools regularly recruit talent and offer lucrative financial-aid packages, the OIA’s push-back is to go the other way and level the playing field, so to speak.
The current No. 1 football team in the state, Punahou, has attracted talent from all over the island, but will likely never be bound to transfer rules dictated by outside entities. Saint Louis, with legendary coach Cal Lee back at the helm, has already drawn talent to the campus. Several former JV players from Kahuku are there, sitting out the required year (public school to private school) before becoming eligible to play.
The No. 2 team, Mililani, is a magnet with similar success to Punahou in terms of accepting transfers. That could change immensely with the new rule.
The timeline for the new rule could also mean that there may be a rush of transfers trying to beat the deadline next summer.
The effect could far-reaching. At Kahuku, there have been generations of students who have grown up on the mainland, then transferred to Kahuku to graduate from their parents’ alma mater. Four current Red Raiders were on the mainland a year ago.
“Some of this job has been so fun and some has been so hard,” first-year head coach Lee Leslie said. “It’s not easy, and this is something i can’t control, so I’m not even worried about it. It’s about getting their academics up so they can get recruited.
Leslie added that if the rule extends to all student-athletes, it could affect families that have expressed an interest in moving to Kahuku from other places in Polynesia.
HHSAA executive director Christopher Chun said he doesn’t believe the rule will go that far.
Some programs, like Kahuku, get more attention than most high schools, and even lower-tier colleges. Kaniela Tuipulotu was a promising, 6-foot-1, 215-pound freshman running back/tight end at Lahainaluna several years ago. Two years later, he moved to Kahuku, living with an uncle and about 10 other relatives under one roof, just for a chance to play for his dream team.
If he had to face a one-year sit-out, things might have turned out differently for Tuipulotu, who wound up becoming an all-state player for the Red Raiders. He later played defensive tackle for the University of Hawaii.
“I probably would’ve stayed in Lahaina. I heard I might have to sit out a year back then for whatever reason, but thankfully I didn’t have to,” he wrote via text. “But I think this new rule is crap. Preventing kids from going to an established school to get recognized by colleges is like eliminating one more resource. It’s crazy. That was my motivation for transferring because without a scholarship, college would’ve been only a dream.”
The notion of neighborhood and community pride has given way, for many student-athletes and parents, to the opportunity to be under the spotlight. The pressure to reap the rewards of a college scholarship is gargantuan for some players. But there are still plenty of athletes who didn’t get constant attention at the prep level and still were “discovered” by college recruiters.
Former Waialua standout Micah Hatchie has started at left tackle for Washington since his sophomore year. His classmate at Waialua, Graham Rowley, was also a standout offensive lineman. He was recruited by BYU and played defensive end for two seasons before going on a church mission. He returned to the Cougars this fall.
Another D-II program, Kaimuki, produced two college players in recent years. Siaosi Hala‘api‘api played immediately at Wyoming, finishing fifth in tackles as a freshman. He is now in his third season as a defensive end for the Cowboys.
Chester Sua, a former standout running back, went from Kaimuki to Washington State. He got on the field quickly, converting to linebacker.
Another player on the WSU roster is former Pearl City standout Cyrus Coen, who has 41 tackles in seven games. Former Aiea player Taylor Taliulu is also on the roster and ranks fourth in tackles.
The rule change already has many parents — and alumni — in an uproar. But if the goal is a college scholarship, Hatchie, Rowley, Hala‘api‘api, Sua and Coen have already proved that playing in a “smaller” program can produce big results.
At the other end of the debate, open enrollment is something parents have wanted for a long time. The effect of students transferring for athletics is not necessarily a large number. But any sway in enrollment numbers can, over time, have an influence over faculty size, particularly in schools that have already seen enrollment numbers shrink.
In the end, it might just be about lack of institutional control — or perception of it — and the OIA is as big an institution as there is in the world of high school athletics.