HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
/ SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Former Kahuku coach Siuaki Livai concentrated on teaching fundamentals, according to former quarterback Inoke Funaki.
Livai leaves a winner
The coach got Kahuku over the hump and faced many controversies in his 10-year stint
Inoke Funaki grew up thinking the Kahuku Red Raiders football team was cursed.
"I used to watch my older brother play, and they always had talent," he said. "But something would always go wrong. They would kill themselves with penalties and other little mistakes."
In the 1980s and 1990s, Kahuku would generally romp through its regular season against inferior competition. But then the Red Raiders would stumble and underachieve in the postseason against teams with less talent.
That all changed on the night of Dec. 1, 2000, when Kahuku finally painted the island red. With Funaki at quarterback, the Red Raiders beat Saint Louis 26-20 for the state championship. Kahuku has gone on to win three more state titles, but many agree the 2000 victory was the most significant high school football game in Hawaii history.
"No question. That game changed the course of Hawaii high school sports for the better because it gave all schools -- especially the public schools -- renewed hope and optimism," Hawaii High School Athletic Association executive
director Keith Amemiya said. "There was no longer this aura of invincibility, and it wasn't just football. The public schools have ended the ILH dominance in many sports since then."
Since 2000, public school teams have won numerous titles in sports previously dominated by private school teams, like swimming and diving, softball, soccer, volleyball, girls basketball and boys track.
And that will be part of the legacy of Siuaki Livai, who resigned yesterday after 10 years as Kahuku's head football coach.
"I think the biggest thing was discipline," Livai said. "I know that's a vague word. You can't really put a finger on it, but it's a day-to-day thing. The biggest reflection is in the kids."
When Funaki, now a quarterback at the University of Hawaii, thinks back to that 2000 state championship game, he remembers being afraid -- not of getting hit or throwing interceptions, but of penalty flags.
"The last touchdown that Mulivai (Pula) scored on the option on the left was the nail in the coffin," Funaki said. "But it was just a relief feeling, when the ball came out of my hand, seeing him take off and he's got it, I know no one's going to catch him. The only thing in my mind is, 'Is there going to be a flag?' When we had a big play, the first thing you think of is, 'Please no yellow flag flying in the air.' "
SB FILE / FEBRUARY 2001
Kahuku coach Siuaki Livai led the Red Raiders to a breakthrough state championship victory over Saint Louis in 2000.
Then Funaki realized this was a new kind of Kahuku team that Livai had built.
"He was always reminding us about penalties, always cracking down on us about the littlest things, because the little things always hurt Kahuku in the past," Funaki said. "He said if you go back and analyze it, it's always little discipline things from breaking huddle correctly to sustaining blocks, to avoiding penalties. He really got on us about that."
Livai also developed Kahuku's passing offense, and -- at least in the early years -- team cohesion.
"We were all close. That year and my senior year, all close friends. No groups within the team," Funaki said. "I remember that year our team theme was unity."
Six years and three more championships later, and that is no longer the case.
Livai said he is stepping down to spend more time with his family and other projects, including his Samoa Bowl and Kingdom Bowl games.
But Livai has expressed profound frustration with consistent complaints from the community at large, mostly about Livai's management style.
Also, assistant coaches began to wonder aloud whether he was putting too much focus on his non-Kahuku programs (such as the bowl games). In fact, Livai was far more relaxed in the offseason, whether he was coaching a Samoa Bowl team or traveling on the road with players to the Kingdom Bowl in Tonga.
Livai, who is Tongan, pursued those endeavors with zeal. He also pursued them without a second thought to what critics might say.
A year ago, defensive coordinator Byron Beatty left after nine seasons. His replacement, Kimo Haiola, also butted heads with Livai, bringing more pressure to the program.
Livai also drew criticism for his starting quarterback choice last season. Though Jacob Kahawaii was clearly the more strong-armed passer, Livai handed the job to his more consistent ballhandler, Kaulin Krebs.
With no intention of throwing the deep ball more than a few times every week, the Kahuku offense pounded away on the ground with Krebs at quarterback. Though the Red Raiders went on to capture the state title, complaints sounded constantly because Kahawaii wasn't the starter.
There were other controversies.
Last winter, the Stadium Authority revealed that fecal matter was found on the walls of Kahuku's locker room at Aloha Stadium following the state championship game.
Also, the seemingly annual accusation of ineligible player use surfaced again.
Last year, Livai had a very public war of words with University of Hawaii coach June Jones about the recruitment or lack thereof of Kahuku football players. Livai laughed yesterday when asked about his relationship with Jones.
"Maybe now we can get together," he said.
While the top Kahuku prospects under Livai's term -- such as current NFL players Ma'ake Kemoe'atu, Chris Kemoe'atu, Aaron Francisco and Toniu Fonoti -- have chosen other colleges than UH, Funaki, and starters Leonard Peters and Tala Esera carpool to Manoa and back every day. More than 20 other former Kahuku players are spread out at colleges across the country.
Why would a coach with so much success -- on the field and off -- step down? Athletic director Joe Whitford said Livai wanted peace.
"The real story is he wanted to move on. If you look at him now, he's a very, very happy man. The pressure of being the Kahuku football coach is unbelievable. It took a toll on his family. Every activity they did, it pertained to football, whether they liked it or not," Whitford said. "No matter what you do, you're not going to please an entire community. There's always going to be some opposition.
"It's a high-profile job and there's always going to be allegations that he did wrong, but whenever there was allegations, it was always found to be not true. Every year, he was accused of having players too old. Our administration checks on it, but no matter what you tell people, they don't believe you."
Livai has often joked about how insatiable the North Shore community is when it comes to football, and sometimes it doesn't matter whether you win or not. He said he can't pinpoint a single key source of discontent.
"It's hard for me to say. A lot of it comes from my own assistants and I don't know what this administration is looking for," Livai said.
Kanani Souza of Kamehameha understands the kind of pressure a football coach at a popular high school program has to endure.
"He did a heckuva of a job bringing discipline to that program. And consistency. He did so much for those kids, took them to camps," the Kamehameha coach said, referring to the annual treks to Utah by Kahuku players. "I admire the job he did."
Cal Lee won 14 consecutive Prep Bowls and state championships at Saint Louis before that Kahuku victory in 2000.
"That was big," Lee said. "It got the monkey off their back."
And another one jumped on Livai.
Star-Bulletin reporter Nick Abramo contributed to this report