(Extended story on the support campaign for Kaiser coach Will Lobendahn. The condensed version ran in today’s Star-Advertiser.)
Supporters of Kaiser football coach Will Lobendahn gathered for a second morning in a row on Lunalilo Home Road in front of the school.
The mix of parents and players drew honks and cheers from some drivers. Supporters had already gathered 600 signatures on a petition, and yesterday they waved signs and wore T-shirts reading “COACH WILL HE STAY WE PLAY” in support of Lobendahn. The coach confirmed recently that he had met with principal John Sosa and athletic director Rodney Iwasaki. He was told that he would not be in charge of spring football.
The team had spring practice this week under Iwasaki, a former football coach at Roosevelt. Without the boycotting student-athletes, there are 13 on the field for spring ball, according to parents and players.
Sosa and Iwasaki have not returned calls from the Star-Advertiser for more than a week.
It’s been a gut-wrenching time for players. Leimana Chong-Gum, a junior safety, is one of the leaders of the players support group.
“I feel kind of bummed. Everything that he started, we truly believe in him. He did everything for the kids, the mandatory study halls, always on time for school, taught us to always have respect for each other,” Chong-Gum said. “We started something so strong with him and now they’re trying to cut him off.”
Players wore supportive T-shirts to school during the week, but were told to leave the cafeteria by Iwasaki unless the shirts were taken off.
“We came in there silently and sat down and (Iwasaki) told us to get out,” Chong-Gum said. “We just wanted to hear what he wanted to say. He said, ‘Now’s not the time.’ ”
Players were told that if they continue to boycott spring practice, they will be cut from the program.
“It’s like they don’t care about us, forcing us to do something we don’t really want to do,” said Chong-Gum, a member of the ROTC program who has a 3.2 grade-point average. “We want everyone to know about this. Coach did so much for us.”
Rumors are swirling around the program regarding prominent fixtures in the coaching community, such as Cal Lee, Greg McMackin and Rich Miano. Lee was at Kaiser in the 1980s with brother Ron when the Cougars won a Prep Bowl. He confirmed on Friday that he is “very happy” at Kalani and has no plans to leave.
McMackin, the former UH coach, has a grandson in the program. Miano, a former defensive backs coach at UH, is a Kaiser alum.
The support group dispersed before 8 a.m., when students — including several non-football players — went to class. Among the supporters was Raquel Ikei, whose husband, Chad, has been heavily involved with his alma mater this spring. Chad Ikei’s training program is renowned among local college and pro athletes.
“A year ago, they had five players training in the spring. Now it’s 45, and that’s because of Coach Lobendahn’s commitment to these kids,” she said. “They started so strong in the offseason. It just seems like (coach) doesn’t get enough support. We just want him to have one more season.”
Lobendahn’s position as a football coach — he is a substitute teacher on campus — has been on rocky ground before. Last year, several players transferred to Kailua, their home district. Other players transferred to Kalani.
Roughly two weeks ago, a complaint was cited against Lobendahn involving a player in the weight room. Though the player’s statement was later retracted, it spurred administrators to dig deeper. The player had expressed doubts about returning to play football next season and Lobendahn tapped him on the belly to encourage him to stay with the team.
Supporters said the administration later dropped the complaint, but decided to release Lobendahn citing the two-year win-loss record of the team. With the transfer issue, Kaiser fielded one of the OIA Red’s smallest teams, including a number of JV call-ups.
But in another turnaround, administrators are re-investigating the incident with the player in the weight room.
Whatever the case, it’s clearly a matter of philosophical differences. It may also be a matter of personality differences with Lobendahn, who is self-admittedly “outspoken”. The former Saint Louis and Virginia Union lineman is an imposing figure on campus, but his popularity as a passionate, stern taskmaster hasn’t swayed. Friends, including students who aren’t in the football program, started a “Support Coach Will Lobendahn” Facebook page.
The page has drawn 2,319 members as of Friday afternoon. One of them is former ‘Iolani standout lineman Junior Tufono, who coaches in the HALOS football league. His son was expecting to attend Kaiser next year.
“It’s a clash of personalities. They’re set in their ways and Will’s set in his way, too,” Tufono said. “I think some mediation would help, at least kind of talk and make it more of an in-house thing so it doesn’t have to be blown out of proportion. I think it was a decision that was made in a quick manner. There was no suspension. All avenues were exhausted in their minds, but a suspension would’ve been better. Let him finish out his last year and they’d have more time to find another coach.”
Chad Ikei had plenty to say — and write — on the Facebook page.
“I chose to volunteer my time and invest into the Kaiser football program because of one man: Will Lobendahn,” Chad Ikei wrote on the Facebook page. “If we can have an impact on the decision to reinstate Coach Will as he has impacted so many of our lives, then we will be the lucky ones.”
Raquel Ikei, who has a son in the eighth grade, has been emotionally touched by the players.
“My husband’s nephews went to Kaiser and they asked Chad to help. They cried because they want to do well and help their coach so much,” she said. “I know Will has only stayed because of the parents and children.”
Gary Murakami is as steady a supporter as there is. His son, Kory, played JV football last season. Gary was calm, but direct with his observations.
“It seems to us that there’s something personal in it. Coach Will has done a lot of good. We want him reinstated because he teaches great character. Everything he’s done is amazing. It’s not about disrespecting administration or anything like that. It’s like a big family,” he said.
Parents met with Iwasaki “a couple weeks ago.”
“The AD said there have been great improvements. We asked are there issues? And he said no. He said Coach Will adjusted,” Murakami said.
Tufono said the supporters will keep things positive.
“We don’t want to bad mouth anyone,” he said. “We just want make people aware of what’s going on and for Coach Will to leave here with his name cleared, not under an umbrella of doubts.”
Two supporters came all the way from Massachusetts to support Lobendahn. Chong-Gum’s great uncle and aunt, Leon and Vischa Hajdamowicz.
“I think someone has misconstrued what happened,” she said.
Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser