POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 20, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 8:26 p.m. HST, Jul 20, 2011
With few exceptions, sportscasters used to be processed with a cookie cutter. Now — and perhaps we can partially thank ESPN's penchant for employing quirky anchors — it's vive la différence.
But in 1989, Wally Zimmerman, running the KITV newsroom at the time, was ahead of the curve when he hired a sportscaster like none before him: Robert Kekaula.
Zimmerman took a chance on an inexperienced guy who was more about a unique presence and hard work than patterned posing and hair spray.
Kekaula ran with the opportunity. He worked hard and developed sources and became an insider in all pertinent aspects of the Hawaii athletics scene. He's been sports director at KITV a combined 16 years in two stints.
He also established himself as an enduring local celebrity, easily one of the 10 most recognizable people in the state.
Zimmerman's instincts were spot-on in giving the big local guy his first on-air opportunity in TV sports.
And Kekaula's first move last week upon attaining the TV play-by-play job for Oceanic's University of Hawaii football telecasts? Take a chance on a young, inexperienced guy, of course.
We know Nate Ilaoa can entertain with a football in his hands, and we know he's quick-witted and personable. But can the former UH star running back — whose only mic experience is as a talented rapper — develop the raw goods Kekaula sees?
Ilaoa had recently returned from playing in an exhibition game in Japan when Kekaula called him last Friday.
"It was out of the blue and we played some phone tag. I never really thought about doing this, but it's right up my alley," says Ilaoa, who was prepping for a possible coaching career and working toward the last class he needs for a bachelor's in history. "I'm anxious, and I'm nervous because I've never done (TV). One thing I know is we're going to have fun with it."
Says Kekaula: "It's a whole arena he's never seen before. But if we get Nate to be Nate, it will be magical."
Same with Darren Hernandez, who will roam the sidelines.
The Kapolei football coach is articulate and eclectic, and this is more than a casual hobby for him — he's been grinding it out for years with the Stadium Stars program and on OC 16 high school telecasts.
"I like what FOX did with Tony Siragusa, take it a step further," Kekaula says of what he envisions for Hernandez. "Not just be the person to speak when spoken to. Jump in when you have something to say.
"Darren can be the guy who speaks the king's English, the bad- ... biker he looks like and everything in between. And that's not putting on an act, that's him."
Let's remember Kekaula's role is new, also. He's done thousands of sports newscasts and handled color for dozens of UH football games on the radio. But his TV play-by-play experience is limited.
"The biggest difference will be preparation. My homework is different now. And during the play my eyes have to follow the ball. As color guy you can look at the pulling guard, how the defense sets up. Definitely, now I have to be on the ball."
THE NEW CREW held its first skull session last weekend at Kekaula's house. Beef stew, cole slaw, soft drinks, coffee and 6 hours of football and sportscasting talk.
"Robert and Coach Darren explained the prep work that goes into it. It's sort of like getting ready to play a game in some ways," Ilaoa says. "I've always been able to form an opinion about sports."
Kekaula told Ilaoa and Hernandez the same thing Zimmerman told him in 1989. "I want you. If I wanted someone else, I'd hire someone else."
There are others more experienced he could have tabbed for his team. Safer choices, perhaps. Not as exciting, perhaps.
You know this if you've played cards with him — it's not Robert Kekaula's nature to take the conventional, conservative approach.
"Nate's a football junky. Darren's a preparation freak. I put these three pieces together in my mind, and it works. I've been rolling the dice since the day I started.
"I like being different."