By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
University of Hawaii at Hilo men’s basketball coach Jeff Law will not return for his 16th season and has accepted the head coaching job at Western New Mexico University.
UHH athletic director Dexter Irvin announced Monday that Law was leaving for the job in Silver City, N.M.
“Every assistant coach looks for that break and I’m very grateful that the university and the Hilo community gave me mine,” Law said. “I’ve learned much over the past 15 years about myself, coaching and people. Hilo holds a special place for anyone who has been here and it will with me.”
Irvin praised Law’s contributions to UHH.
“The university is very grateful for the stability and leadership coach Law has provided to Vulcans men’s basketball for the past 15 years,” Irvin said. “We look forward to a new opportunity and we will move forward as quickly as allowable to hire a new and well-qualified coach.
“Our men’s basketball program has been the flagship of our athletic program, and the accomplishments of our students and the team is an important in building the overall success of athletics at UH-Hilo.”
Vulcan assistant coach Zac Zepponi will oversee the program, including recruiting, until a new head coach is hired. Until Monday’s announcement, Law had been recruiting for UHH.
“Change could be good for everyone, even the players,” Law said. “Fifteen years is a long time and now it’s time to start something new.”
Irvin said a search for a new coach has begun and UHH will develop the qualifications and job description, then advertise the position for 30 days. Once the application deadline ends, a search committee will interview the finalists and make a recommendation to Irvin, who will forward it onto the UHH chancellor for final approval.
Based on past UHH experiences, the hiring process may take 45 to 60 days before a new coach is brought on board.
Law’s new job will start April 1.
Law will work under WNMU athletic director Mark Coleman, a longtime friend and former WNMU men’s basketball coach. Coleman brought his team to play the Vulcans on several occasions over the years.
The NCAA Division II Mustangs were 10-16 overall this past year in Coleman’s final season with the team before moving into an AD-only position.
In Law’s 15 seasons leading the Vulcans, his teams compiled a 209-186 overall record.
During his tenure, UHH captured one Pacific West Conference title and advanced to the NCAA Division II West Regionals on three occasions. He also earned two Coach of the Year awards and his program produced 24 all-conference players over the years.
But the Vulcans struggled the past two seasons, finishing with 6-19 and 9-17 records, respectively, a combined 15-36 overall. In the highly competitive PacWest, UHH compiled 4-13 and 5-13 records, respectively, a combined 9-26 mark.
Law met with UHH’s five returning players Monday afternoon to inform them of his leaving the program. The returnees include juniors Derek Owens, Lucas Swanson, Brandon Thomas and Oxone-Ross Mavungu, and sophomore Mika Wong.
When hired as the UHH coach in 1998, Law took over a program that had only one winning season in the previous 12 years. He quickly turned the Vulcans into a solid team and brought in enough talented recruits to help his squad battle the top PacWest schools on a competitive basis through his first 10 years.
Law was known for his recruiting ability and annually brought in experienced junior college players to build his team around. He seldom recruited freshmen and felt he could reload with JC talent to keep UHH competitive at the NCAA Division II level.
When Law was hired in 1998, he took over the UHH program from coach Jim Forkum, who stepped down after a three-year stint and returned to California to coach and teach at a junior college.
Before UHH, Law spent eight years as an assistant at the University of Hawaii under head coach Riley Wallace. The Rainbows went 142-96 during that period. After his first four years with Wallace, Law took a two-year break and was an assistant coach at Santa Monica College (1993-94) and associate head coach at Los Angeles City College (1992-93).
Law began his coaching career in 1985 as an assistant varsity coach at his alma-mater, SUNY-Plattsburgh. The next year, he moved to Hobart College and spent three seasons there as the junior varsity head coach and an assistant varsity coach.
While at UHH, Law and his Vulcans were active in the community, including doing clinics and camps, various other events, and working with Special Olympics. His student-athletes also fared well in the class room, with the majority going on to earn their college degrees.
Law’s most successful year came during the 2004-05 season. Despite losing two of his top returning players, the unranked Vulcans finished with a 25-4 record and ranked No. 8 in the final NABC/NCAA Division II poll. They were ranked No. 1 in the West Region for three consecutive weeks before dropping to the second spot in the final poll.
UHH was picked to finish second in the PacWest that season, but instead won the conference title. The team’s final 25-4 record is the second best winning percentage in Vulcan basketball history at .862.
Email Tribune-Herald sports editor Bill O’Rear at email@example.com.