In the late 1960s on well into the 1980s the University of Hawaii football team didn’t have a video coordinator or its own booster club and lacked an operations director or an administrative assistant to the head coach.
But it had Burnett “Ben” Yee.
In time Yee would have his hand and heart in all those things amid more than a 40-year tenure. Oh, and he also planned banquets, also without picking up a paycheck.
“There was not a better person, a more giving person than Ben,” said Bob Wagner, who combined had nearly 20 years as a UH head coach and an assistant.
Yee, 88, died Friday from non-COVID-19 causes while hospitalized following a recent surgery, a spokesman said.
Yee had been a supporter of UH football and helped around the program under head coaches Dave Holmes, Larry Price and Dick Tomey. Wagner’s ascent in 1987 soon coincided with Yee’s retirement from the Department of Defense’s Public Works Center after nearly 38 years.
“I said, ‘Ben, I have an offer to make you,’ ” Wagner recalled. “I told him, ‘I’ll give you an office right near mine and you can work your butt off every day. You can film practice and we might even harass you sometimes. What do you think?’ Oh, and there was no (salary) with it.”
Naturally, Yee took the job.
Former tight end Kent Untermann (1981-84) said, “Ben was my favorite all-time human being. He was honorable, kind, positive, selfless, action oriented and touched so many lives. He welcomed every new person at UH, which is how we met forty years ago.”
Untermann said, “He never wanted anything for himself, it was all about helping others. We all have good and bad days but with Ben you always knew what you were going to get. He was always on.”
Yee congratulated players on making big plays, encouraged those who were struggling, consoled players and coaches after tough losses and railed against nonsensical administrators. All the while the flattop haircut and a toothpick stuck in the side of his mouth became trademarks. While the 1950s haircut never caught on and players would joke with him about it, several took to toothpicks including at least one who took it into a game.
At one point, Yee missed but a single game — a 1981 visit to Texas-El Paso — in a 20-year span, home and away. He amassed so many friendships with players and families over the years he became an unofficial alumni director.
Before one UH road trip to Colorado Yee casually mentioned that, if he could find the time, he thought he might take in a Denver Broncos game. By the time he got to Denver word had spread and at least four former UH players living in the area had come up with tickets for him. “I guess I’ll have to sit in a different seat each quarter,” Yee joked.
When Wagner decided to start a football-specific booster club, Na Koa, Yee helped come up with the name and did much of the legwork. Michael Iosua, current Na Koa Board president and football alumnus (1998-01), said, “Ben Yee was one of UH football’s biggest fans and was instrumental in the establishment and operations of Na Koa from its early days. He was a guiding light to the organization and the team, and will be fondly remembered as a true Warrior.”
Some years ago UH looked to rename the football team’s most inspirational player award that had once been named for former head coach Clark Shaughnessy. Initially some wondered about naming it for someone who had never suited up for the ’Bows.
But the more they thought about it, the more the idea of putting Yee’s name on it made perfect sense.