By Wayne Harada
Mention the University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine Volleyball, and invariably, coach David Shoji’s name pops up. The game is synonymous with his fame.
This, despite the scores of Wahine team players who have graced the rosters over the past four decades.
Shoji, after all, has been the centrifugal force behind four national championships for the team, guiding the Wahine to back-to-back triumphant seasons for nearly 40 years.
And perhaps this week, still early in the 2013 season, Shoji’s remarkable reign as a Hall of Fame coach may add another milestone to his lei of orchids: he is destined and poised to become the winningest NCAA volleyball coach, surpassing the 1,106 victories amassed by UCLA’s legendary coach, Andy Banachowski’s, who is a booster of Shoji’s style and legend and happy to relinquish the “winningest” title to Shoji.
That premise, and possibility, is part of the wonderment and wishes of “Dave Shoji: The Man Behind the Miracles,” a TV special airing twice —tonight (Sept. 5) and Sunday (Sept. 8). Could happen tonight (Sept. 5), or in the days ahead.
Most of us know Shoji largely through his courtside dynamics, a powerful leader who recognizes and develops blockers, setters and hitters on his team, an intense and resourceful wizard who cares about his athletes on and off the playing field.
Cobey Shoji Hutzler, the coach’s daughter, describes him as a “quietly intense person” who masks his emotions. “He has a lot of peculiar traits only we see at home.”
Tom Selleck, the one-time “Magnum P.I.” actor (and volleyball player) now starring on CBS’ “Blue Bloods,” says of Shoji, “he’s so centered as a person, so centered as a coach.” He knows, having played with the coach as a teammate at the Outrigger Canoe Club.
Stanford women’s volleyball coach John Dunning says Shoji’s triumphs are due to the fact that “he was a great strategist.”
Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, now an assistant Wahine coach who was a player while a student, opines: “Coach Shoji is a task master ... (who) comes off as mean and grumpy” because of his high expectations of his players. But “how can you not love Dave?”
The documentary, by Phil Arnone, assembles coach Shoji’s family, current and former Wahine players, fellow coaches who were previous competitors, who provide candid and anecdotal reflections on Shoji. Ex-local Larry Fleece produced segments taped on the Mainland.
Combined with vintage and recent footage of the Wahine in action, the show speaks volumes of a UH entity that is a rarity today: the team and the sport actually make money for its university, a feat unquestionably linked to Shoji’s dedication and his team’s performance record.
Shoji, 66, was born in Upland, California, but his parents moved to Hawaii, settling in Kapahulu. Dad’s job with C. Brewer sent the family back to the Mainland for a period, but be and his wife Mary settled in Niu Valley.
He was a tri-sport athlete at Upland High School, but volleyball was not on his radar then. It was at UC Santa Barbara that Shoji learned of beach volleyball, where his now-friend Dennis Berg was PE teacher, so he took a course — the roots of his journey that would become Shoji’s franchise.
After a stint as an infantry officer with the Army at Fort Ord, a jobless Shoji returned home and found work as an assistant coach at Punahou School, where Chris McLachlin was head coach. He recommended Shoji to UH athletic director Donnis Thompson, who was searching for a volleyball coach in the era of Rep. Patsy Mink’s historic Title 9 program mandating equal opportunities for female athletes. She hired Shoji in 1974, but the job included coaching the men’s volleyball team, too, with a paltry $1,000 salary.
Because of his youthfulness, coach Shoji looked like and blended in with the students. “He had black hair— and a chawan haircut,” said Wahine player Terry Malterre, a middle-blocker from 1975 to ‘79, about Shoji’s head of bowl-style hair. She was part of Shoji’s first NCAA win, in a season not without challenges.
The spiker miracle was only beginning.
Shoji’s savvy as a coach was obvious early on. “He had a great way with finding players,” says UCLA coach Banachowski, who unsuccessfully tried to recruit Deitre Collins-Park, a middle-blocker (1980-‘83), who opted to become a Wahine. “He was a strong leader, a strong coach ... I was there to do what he told me to do,” Collins-Park says. “He led me in a great direction... it just clicked.”
Shoji led the Wahine to the NCAA championship in 1979, ‘82, ‘83 and ‘87. In ’81, the team won 37 and lost two, was undefeated before going into the finals, and was upset by USC, so the trophy eluded Hawaii.
The TV special hones in on the obivious: the loyal fans, like Aunties Lauretta and Lenora, are up and and center, in their green and white garb, flashing “Shoji No Ka Oi” signs; Jim Leahy, a longtime broadcaster, who narrates; footage at the old Klum Gym and the current Stan Sheriff Center, reflecting the old and new generation of fanship; the script by Robert Pennybacker, rightfully paying homage to the steadfast UH coach whose record speaks for itself.
And then there’s the clip of the UH-New Mexico State game on Oct. 17, 2009, when Shoji logged his 1,000th win before 9,000 screaming fans at Stan Sheriff.
The Rainbow Wahine have been to the NCAA tournament 31 times, so one more championship would be nice, say his friends, colleagues and family. Ben
Jay, current UH athletic director, “I mean who does that, who has that kind of longevity?”
Scott Wong, who played on the men’s volleyball and basketball teamsand now serves as an assistant coach, said Shoji was the magical ingredient in the winning formula: Wahine volleyball always had a direct correlation with Shoji.
On the private and personal side, Shoji admits family is first and foremost. Golf, too — “my exercise,” he reveals.
“He’s my best friend and a wonderful husband,” says wife Mary. She has an athletic background and also coached at Punahou, so they understand each other’s needs.
“He’s so humble. He’s such a regular guy,” says daughter Cobey.
And sons Kawika and Erik, athletes in their own rights at Stanford and now in Europe, admit that family ties are strong — a key linked to a Christian upbringing.
Shoji watches taped golf matches in his man cave, after the family is asleep.
And yes, he’s contemplating retirement, but there’s the issue of a fifth championship first.
Stay tuned; the marvel of the miracle worker still is in the works.
'DAVE SHOJI: THE MAN BEHIND THE MIRACLES'
9 p.m. today (Sept. 5), KGMB; 9 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 8), KHNL