Every morning, the sun rises and the mind of Ron Lee is already percolating.
To a large extent, life has been about work for Lee, both in the hotel industry and in his passion on the gridiron. Lee, one of the braintrusts of the four-wide offensive philosophy, finally took some time off. In the three weeks since Saint Louis recaptured the state championship with a 30-14 win over No. 1 Kahuku, he has recharged and reinvigorated body, mind and soul.
Lee guided Kaiser to an Oahu Prep Bowl championship in 1979 as a head coach, and has had two stints at as a college assistant coach. In this Q&A by phone on Tuesday, he touches on the three-year ascent of Saint Louis since the return of his brother, head coach Cal Lee, himself and their staff to Kalaepohaku. This is title No. 16 at Saint Louis for the Lee brothers: 14 Prep Bowl crowns, a state title in 1999 and this year.
And yes, Ron Lee doesn’t plan to stop coaching anytime soon.
Hawaii Prep World:Three years into the return, and Saint Louis has a state title again. It was a huge challenge in a rugged ILH, going back to a school that was in survival mode. It wouldn’t be surprising either way, if you and Coach Cal stay and keep building what you started, or walk away with nothing left to accomplish.
RL: It takes hard work. Not too many people ever ask. The misconception is we gotta win championships. People think at Saint Louis you gotta win at all costs. I read that. It’s never that. We enjoy coaching, helping the kids. We never said, this is the time to get out, this is the perfect time to get out. We’re never in this to just win championships. To see the kids get the opportunity, to get a championship after working so hard for three years. I enjoy it, getting up and planning the practice and getting ready for the next game. I go to the school and see the guys coming back and excited to get ready for next year. Why get out? We’ll see what happens. I don’t know what Cal wants to do. It’s really Saint Louis, what they want and that kind of stuff.
HPW: Your offensive unit had 20 receivers, so much depth, and the nation’s top quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa. But the offensive line really came together this season.
RL: Mikey (Minihan) is a hard worker. When he came over, he was barely 200 pounds. He just trains and works hard, he’s a good student. Really an outstanding individual. Choosing Georgia Tech, that’s his style. His strength is more of an aggressive blocker. He had to work hard on showing patience in pass protection. He had to learn to be patient on passing situations. He’s become a well-rounded offensive lineman. The last few games since the middle of the season, he was really playing some outstanding football. Him going to the next level, his real strength is his footwork. He’s very light on his feet, a lot of explosion. He’s more of a complete player. He picked up 30, 40 pounds (in the offseason), so there was some adjustment he had to make, carrying the weight and running. There wasn’t really anyone that he had problems with.
HPW: He’s at left tackle, but it was also the rest of the O-line that produced.
RL: Jacob-Drew (Russell) put in the effort in the offseason. He was kind of a late starter. he has some injury problems his sophomore, junior year. He was a backup center, then a backup guard. He moved around. Then he had a knee or ankle injury early in the season. Since he’s been back, he’s gotten so much better. He’s kind of like Mikey, just self made. He was in that 200-210 bracket, but he worked hard in the offseason, goes to all the camps and that’s what happened to him. Because he played some center, guard, tackle even, he’s smart, really understands the protection, the blocking, the run schemes. He was always real physical, had to learn to sit back in pass protection. He’s a little bit on the short side, but physically, Navy, Army, that kind of run blocking is perfect for a guy like him. So physical, explosive. The option teams want that low pad level and that toughness. It’s just a matter of where he wants to go.
He’s a good student, great kid. He’s got great leverage, he’ll be fine with pass protection. The all-star games will be good for him. The teams we played, all in the Top 10, every week there was great competition for these guys. They’re not the skill-position guys and don’t get the recognition, but it’s work they do and the work our OL coaches Rob Crowell and James Hall do.
HPW: Last year, it was Nate Herbig (who started four games at Stanford this season) as the cornerstone of the line, and it seems like each year there is a new crew.
RL: After the first year (2014), we lost four starters. Next year, lost four starters. This year we were kind of half and half. Mikey was the only returnee (starter). The year before it was Nate. The rest were young and going through the process. A little undersized, but because of their offseason work ethic, they bulked up and did what they had to do to be competitive. Punahou and Kamehameha, even ‘iolani had some great linemen and linebackers. Every week it was a battle in the trenches. When we go against each other, our defense started to pick up, too. I think they’re ready to go to the next level.
Our center was the best: Eliki Tanuvasa. If you look at tape, he was the best center by far in the state, so consistent. He blocked the nose guard by himself. Very, very consistent. Smart. He’s going to be one of the best linemen, and we got some linemen who are coming back, returning starters. His sophomore year, until he got hurt (broken thumb), was one of our better linemen. Positioning, feet. Next season, he’ll dominate. And he’s a 4.0 student.
Our left guard, Arasi Mose, works hard, trains. With him and Eliki, we’re going to have two of the top linemen in the state, size-wise and experience. With Jacob and Mikey, we had a really good front. Jayden Tupuola was a solid tackle for three years. The leadership and the closeness of those guys was really underrated. Arasi is only a sophomore, like Tui (Tuitele).
HPW: Tua will graduate, and his backup, Chevan Cordeiro, will be a senior.
RL: He will be one of the top quarterbacks in the state. He works hard and knows the system. The schedule was so hard we couldn’t play him that much, but he gets a lot of reps at practice, so he’ll be ready. He can throw the ball and he’s got speed. I hope he picks up 20 pounds. He can be a Division I (college) quarterback. He knows what we’re doing, accurate, has all the tools. Now is his time.
With Tua, we did so many other things, the running. Next year, whoever’s coaching, with the receivers and QB and RB, we have a chance to be better. You lose Tua and some seniors and that hurts, but the young guys at receivers, we brought up 10-12 freshmen from the JV and they practiced with us (after the JV season). Wow, there’s some speed and talent. We lose Ronson (Young) and some of the other receivers and Tua, of course, but there is a lot of speed in the offense next year and the O-line will probably be stronger. Chev has a whole bunch of guys to work with.
HPW: One of the most telling moments of that state championship game was the final scoring drive when Dylan Silva scored on the touchdown run. I have never seen Kahuku’s defense that tired, or tired at all. The game flow, not getting much rest as their offense struggled, and Saint Louis’ offense controlling the ball, the way Tua picked his spots and ran for chunks, was basically shocking.
RL: Kahuku is good on defense. They have five, six kids that can play (college) Division I. Good schemes, good players, but our kids are underestimated, with the schedule we had. There’s no softies. In the whole OIA, Kahuku doesn’t get that kind of schedule. What you saw was a combination of our competition, coming from behind, every week is a battle. Most of the time, Kahuku gets through pretty easily. I knew this would be a factor: We practice for Kahuku and Punahou, the top teams, our work ethic every week, we’re looking to the finals, looking to play Kahuku, Punahou, Kamehameha for the championship.
It’s a process. It’s a plan, getting better every week. What you saw at the end, we got guys who got hurt. Guys go down, you don’t wait ’til they get hurt to start subbing. You play all your guys from the start of the season. Kahuku, they play their starters the whole game, at the end of the game it catches up with you. People don’t understand that. Some of the parents, and it’s always been the situation at Saint Louis, especially in the past, the starters don’t play that much. We lost Isaac (Slade-Matautia, shoulder) and Noa (Purcell, concussion). When somebody goes down, the next guy steps up — he’s played in every game. It’s the process of the kids, the practices, how they gear up for the playoffs. We peaked at pretty much the right time. Sometimes that doesn’t happen.
Seeing the kids at the school this past week, they’re excited. It’s great to see.
HPW: What is there left to say about a leader and playmaker like Tua?
RL: The thing that’s overlooked is just his competitive spirit. He thrives on competition. He really likes it. He doesn’t boast or show it. The (Nike) Elite 11, he didn’t have to go. He had the scholarship to Alabama, but he wanted to compete against the best. That, to me, was the example of the kind of competitor he is, not just to compete, but to win. He’s up there, not knowing what they’re running offensively, and beats the the best in the country, that is just impressive. To go to the bowl games, to pick Alabama when they’ve got their quarterback, that doesn’t bother him. He’ll compete. When Tua went to Saint Louis, he had to compete against good QBs that were starters before him. That doesn’t bother him.
In the games, he looks forward to playing Punahou and Kamehameha. He’s totally confident. That’s the thing that I think people don’t understand. They think he’s a triple threat and all this stuff, but it’s his competitiveness, 7-on-7s, 11-on-11s, he steps up. Look at what he did in the big games. Some guys in the big games, they’re so-so. That’s where the competitor comes out and that’s what Tua is. He’s in a class by himself.
HPW: One of the many, many things I’ll remember about him is a small thing. He actually slid during a game this year, and he said he had never practiced it.
RL: He adjusted. He got banged up his junior year by unnecessary hits, so he learned to take care of himself. He’s got to do that at the next level, too, gotta be smart.