Rich Miano won’t be a Cal Lee supporter on Thursday evening. But he will on election day.
“For sure I’ll vote for him,” Miano said of Lee, who was one of his high school football coaches and a colleague on the University of Hawaii staff until last year. Lee is running for Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee.
“He will do a great job on behalf of the Hawaiian people,” Miano continued. “I’ll contribute financially. I’ll even hold signs for Cal.”
The admiration is reciprocated by Lee, as well as by his brother, Ron, who was also a Warriors staff member. And Ron was the head coach at Kaiser High School, where Miano starred as the Cougars won the 1979 Prep Bowl. That was an early highlight in the legendary coaching careers of the Lees. It was a springboard for Miano, a former diver, to college football at UH and then a long NFL career.
“We’re close,” Cal Lee said. “And we’ve remained close.”
Not quite as physically close as they were at UH. Now they’re a school apart, separated by a couple of miles of Kalanianaole Highway and Lunalilo Home Road.
The Lees, now coaching at Kalani High (where Cal was a star linebacker in the ’60s), and Miano, head coach at his alma mater, collide Thursday night when the Falcons — who don’t have their own stadium — play their homecoming game at Kaiser against the Cougars.
It’s the greatest thing to happen to public high school football in East Honolulu since … well, since Kaiser won the Prep Bowl 33 years ago.
These aren’t the best teams in the state. Neither is in the state’s Top 10. Both are feisty members of the OIA White Division, small enrollment schools that actually belong there.
But they’re up and coming. Kalani (4-3, 4-4 overall) has steadily improved since Ron Lee joined Greg Taguchi’s staff in 2010 as offensive coordinator and got another boost when Cal came on board to run the defense last spring. Meanwhile, Kaiser (6-1, 6-2) has won six in a row in Miano’s first season of coaching in the prep ranks.
The Falcons are playing Thursday for a shot at the White playoffs, and the Cougars for top seed. But there’s much more at stake. There’s that formerly nasty R word that we’re not supposed to acknowledge exists in high school sports. Recruiting. There, I wrote it.
The Interscholastic League of Honolulu powerhouses and other public schools used to mine the talent in this area without having to worry about Kaiser or Kalani. Now, with their big-name coaches, they have the ability to stand up to them — and each other. Miano said the outcome of Thursday’s televised game could determine where some future stars end up going.
“As much as I like the Lee brothers, it’s a recruiting war,” Miano said. “To me, it’s probably more intense than when I was at the University of Hawaii, because we have our rivals right down the street.”
Since before the turn of the millennium, football was all but dead at Kalani and critically ill at Kaiser.
“I’d drive by Kalani and they used to have these small little pods of players,” Miano said. “I always wondered if these (football programs) could survive on their own, maybe they’d have to combine. Now this whole area is revitalized with the Lee brothers and what’s happened at Kaiser. You have to give (the players) a reason to stay. We have the reasons now.”
Now, with the big-name coaches on board, Kalani and Kaiser both keep more of the athletes from their districts. And whatever you want to call it, they’re already attracting others from outside the borders.
“Actually, it’s more that they’re staying home. Especially this year, we had a great turnout for JV, about 50 kids,” Ron Lee said. “The other real noticeable thing is I’ve been going to the same places for everything for years and years. Now all of a sudden the people who work at Zippy’s, Longs, the bank, they all tell me they’re Kalani grads and they follow the team.”
There’s something new about this rivalry, but there’s something traditional about it. It’s great to see these coaches who weren’t retained at UH are still in the game, at their old schools (Ron Lee, a Saint Louis graduate, started his coaching career at Kalani), and for the right reasons. Hawaii high school football coaching was already very good, and it’s now this much better.
“When you go to your alma mater, it’s special,” Cal Lee said. “I’ve come full circle in the sense I started here and coming back to where I started my football career. I have a lot of aloha for the school.”
Miano is too busy and too happy to worry about not getting the UH head coaching job he applied for last year.
“I have so much respect for (the Lee brothers). I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair if it weren’t for them, because I wouldn’t have played football,” he said. “I’m really content and I find myself at peace.
Finally being a head coach. Having great kids who work tremendously hard and a great staff. My goal was to never leave Hawaii.”
Reach Dave Reardon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 529-4783.