By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports writer
When the University of Hawaii at Hilo names its new men’s head basketball coach, it will be the most important decision made by athletic director Dexter Irvin in his four years at the college.
“This is going to be the biggest hire since I’ve been here,” Irvin said Friday. “We have over 200 applicants and more are coming in every day. I think we have some excellent candidates, and a pool of quality coaches to pick from. I’m excited about the opportunity to hire the new coach. It’s complex because of the community, and the nature of basketball here and its historical significance. Men’s basketball has always been our flagship program and it’s critical to our athletic program.”
Irvin said a five-person review committee, headed by UHH assistant AD-compliance Pam Knox, will begin sifting through the applications next week and whittling down the list to four or five finalists. The finalists will be interviewed by the committee and ranked in order. That list will be presented to Irvin, who will recommend his top choice to the UHH administration for final approval.
“Because of the large number of applications, the committee will start looking at them next week,” Irvin said. “Some of applications are not fully completed and it’ll be easy to move past them. But overall, we have some excellent candidates and the committee will work to get the pool down to a workable size.
“We’re hoping to interview the finalists by the first week of May, and we’d like to have the new coach on board by June 1. That’s our goal and we’ll be shooting for that.”
The UHH collegiate athletic program began at the NAIA level in the late 1970s and later transitioned into NCAA Division II. Men’s basketball always has been the biggest revenue producer and its highest profile sport — at one time consistently drawing crowds of 3,000-plus at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium and occasionally having postseason games shown on statewide television.
But those Vulcan heydays have since passed and almost anyone who watched the UHH men’s basketball team struggle the past two seasons before smallish crowds at UHH Gym knows the program needs a major energy boost to win a lot more games to bring back the fans.
Irvin watched intently as the Vulcans struggled those two years, and when veteran coach Jeff Law resigned at the end of this past season to take another coaching job on the mainland, the AD quickly focused his attention on finding a new coach to re-energize the program. The Vulcans finished 6-19 overall and 4-13 in the Pacific West Conference this past year, averaging between 300 to 400 fans per home game.
Last month, Law, who spent 15 seasons at UHH, accepted the head coaching job at Western New Mexico University and he’ll look to get back on the winning track with the D-II Mustangs — like several of Law’s previously successful teams during his stint in Hilo. He leaves behind five players from this past season’s squad.
“We’ll honor the scholarships of the returning players, and if they decide to transfer, we’ll release them,” Irvin said. “The new coach will have four or five scholarships to recruit his own players.”
That means the new Vulcans coach will have to hit the ground running to immediately bring in talent to upgrade the current roster. The past two years Law’s teams often didn’t seem to have enough firepower to compete against the better teams in the PacWest, and that situation will have to be corrected by the new coach if Irvin’s goal of having a title contender in the near future can materialize.
Irvin said he believes UHH has enough resources to build a team that can be among the PacWest’s elite in men’s basketball.
The UHH job opening was posted March 20 and closes April 19. There has been tremendous interest in the coaching position with over 200 applications received in the first 2 1/2 weeks — the highest total number of applicants for the Vulcan basketball job ever. This is the fourth time in school history that the position has opened.
The new coach will work directly under Irvin, and although a salary has not been posted along with the job, it’s believed to range from $55,000 to $70,000, in line with some similar NCAA D-II jobs on the mainland.
Irvin called hiring the new coach a “critical decision.” He’s deciding whether to hire a veteran head coach with a proven resume, a top assistant from a successful D-I or II program, a junior college head coach who might be able to bring along some of his players to beef up the UHH roster, or young Vulcan assistant Zac Zepponi, who will apply for the head coaching job and has overseen the UHH program since Law left.
Irvin said the UHH basketball program is in good shape.
“Coach Law completed the schedule for next year, and we have 20 conference games and six preseason games,” Irvin said. “Now, we’ve just got to get the new coach on board and build for the future.”
Email Tribune-Herald sports editor Bill O’Rear at firstname.lastname@example.org.