He drives by the Kalani High School football practice field every day, on his way to visit his parents in Aina Haina. He knows the coach, and that the team uses the offensive scheme with which he is intimately familiar and forever linked.
So one day he pulls into the parking lot and watches. The next day he does the same thing. "But it’s kind of hard to see it from the car," he says.
Within a few days, Ron Lee—a year ago the coordinator for the yard-chomping University of Hawaii football team’s run-and-shoot offense—has joined the Kalani staff as a full-time volunteer coach.
The Falcons haven’t won a varsity game since 2004.
"This goes beyond X’s and O’s because of what an outstanding person and teacher Ron is," says Greg Taguchi, a former Kalani running back on his third tour of duty as Falcons head coach. "The players know who he is. Our kids are stable and don’t show much emotion. But I sure hope they know they have an opportunity."
Lee downplays it, but plenty of local high school coaches would have been elated to bring him on as an adviser or onto their staff. Teams that are contenders for the state championship. Teams with numbers and size. Teams that haven’t lost nearly 50 games in a row.
SO WHY KALANI? And why, at 66, continue to coach at all after the way he was marginalized at UH?
Second question first: Lee’s never been in it to make a million bucks or a name for himself. He could have hung on for the paycheck at UH after his play-calling duties were stripped, and, as receivers coach, he could have mentored a potential All-American this season in Greg Salas.
But he was wise to leave a frustrating situation that could have just gotten worse, no matter the good intentions of all involved. Lee has been around long enough to know that’s how friendships—and teams—are damaged or even ruined.
He’s always been more about building than bringing down. That, and historical and family ties, make Kalani a good fit.
Its enrollment is around 1,100 students in a good year. Rumors of Kalani shutting down persisted for decades, as its boundaries were squeezed by Kaimuki to the west and Kaiser to the east. The 45 junior varsity and 32 varsity candidates out for football this summer constitutes a bumper crop for the Falcons.
In 2000, Kalani won three games. In 2004, it beat Roosevelt 21-19. Taguchi said the Falcons won a forfeit a couple of years ago. Other than that, all losses.
"I don’t even want to know the records," Lee says. "It doesn’t matter. I don’t know how many games we will win. We just need to compete and have fun, and go from there.
"This reminded me that you can do some good."
Lee flirted briefly with Punahou.
"I talked to Kale (Ane, the Buffanblu head coach), who I really like, about possibly getting involved working with him. But it’s not like they need me," he says. "I like being on the field. I don’t want to be a consultant, I want to coach."
The big field with the little team off Kalanianaole Highway is where it all started for Ron Lee. He was a Kalani junior varsity coach in 1967, with Al Wills, Norm Chow’s brother Mike, and Bill Von Arnswaldt. Skippa Diaz was with the varsity.
The Falcons rarely contended in the old ILH, but they had their moments. Ron’s brother Cal was an intense and physical linebacker who led them to one of their better seasons.
Kalani is the answer to my favorite Hawaii sports trivia question: It is the only high school in the state with an alumnus who played on a World Series winner (Lenn Sakata) and another on a Super Bowl winner (Roy Gerela). A Falcon also captained a U.S. Olympic team (Joe Story, handball).
"We had some good ones," Cal Lee says.
The Lees eventually went a few blocks east to the new Hawaii Kai school where Ron became the head varsity coach of Kaiser, with Cal running the defense.
Ron installed the run-and-shoot as an equalizer because, at first, his players were small. He scoured the campus for athletes, finding kicker Peter Kim on the soccer field and safety Rich Miano at the swimming pool.
Kaiser became an athletic powerhouse and won the 1979 Prep Bowl and was very strong in several other sports, too. The Cougars’ emergence cut into what little success Kalani enjoyed. Also, the Honolulu private schools plucked some of the area’s best athletes—especially when the Lee brothers moved to Saint Louis, which dominated Hawaii high school football in the late 1980s and throughout the ’90s.
NO ONE EXPECTS the same thing that happened at Kaiser 30 years ago to happen at Kalani simply because of Lee’s presence. No one expects the Falcons to become a powerhouse overnight. They will still be undersized, at least for now. Too many injuries and they could still forfeit games due to insufficient numbers.
As Taguchi says, "We have what we have and we do our best. No excuses."
But there’s something new around the Falcons camp: A real sense of hope.
When Taguchi first cold-called Lee for advice on the run-and-shoot eight years ago, he never imagined this day. "I guess you can never count anything out," he says.
For Lee, it makes perfect sense. It’s a homecoming and it’s another chance to build and to teach—like he did at Kaiser, at Saint Louis and at UH.
Even though he still has his "real" job, running the Outrigger Showroom four nights a week, Ron Lee says he’s just a humble retiree looking for something to fill his time.
"I spent 12 hours a day at UH. I have all day to do nothing and I’m not used to that."
It’s easy to see, though, that this is something much more than a hobby.