COURTESY OF HIRAM DE FRIES
Hiram de Fries, second from left, was joined at the Florida team dinner Saturday by wife Trudi, left, quarterback Tim Tebow, granddaughter Alexis, daughter Tamar, son-in-law Jed Saronitman and grandson Hiram, front center.
Hawaii’s de Fries lends a hand to Florida’s Meyer
The Punahou alum could be a key connection if the Gators recruit Polynesians
It's hard to find a college football environment more exciting than the one in Gainesville, Fla. But for Hiram de Fries, a Gators volunteer administrative assistant, Hawaii will always be home.
"I still have a home in Papakolea and one at Kahala on the beach," de Fries said in a phone interview from Glendale, Ariz., where Florida plays Ohio State for the BCS championship today. "It's pretty hard to beat living in Hawaii, but being involved in football at Florida is great."
De Fries, 64, is a Kalihi born-and-raised 1959 Punahou School graduate who went on to a highly successful career as an executive with Shell Oil and as an attorney. Work took him to Southern California, where he coached at Mission Viejo and Mater Dei high schools in the 1990s through 2002.
At Mater Dei, he was on the staff that coached Matt Leinart and Colt Brennan.
"I'm just delighted about how things have turned out for Colt," he said of the record-setting Hawaii quarterback who was sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting last season. "It couldn't happen to a better guy."
When Shell sent de Fries back to Hawaii, and then to Washington state and Houston, he continued to coach in California by commuting there on weekends.
During that time, he got to know a young assistant at his alma mater, Colorado State. Although Urban Meyer is more than 20 years younger than de Fries, they became close friends.
De Fries retired a few years ago (although he continues as a consultant and lobbyist for Shell). After Meyer's successful head-coaching debut at Bowling Green, he took the Utah job before the 2003 season, and de Fries joined him as an administrative assistant. More success earned Meyer the Florida position in 2005, and de Fries joined him there.
"His beliefs align with mine," de Fries said. "We believe in the same things. One of them is to find great people who will make great efforts."
De Fries' duties at Florida are similar to what they were at Utah, where he worked in community relations and mentoring at-risk student athletes. He was a role model for many Polynesian players.
"A lot of them had never met a Polynesian who was also a lawyer," de Fries said.
At Florida, there is just one player with a Pacific Islands tie. Backup receiver Louis Murphy's mother (who is of Samoan descent and from Hawaii) and his father (a former Kaneohe Marine) met while attending Chaminade University, de Fries said.
Meyer wants to eventually recruit Polynesian players to Florida. But among the approximately 100,000 people in Gainesville, there are very few Pacific Islanders.
"But there are a lot in Orlando (about 120 miles away), working for the hotels and Disney. That's the due diligence we're working on," de Fries said. "Can we put together some kind of structure for recruiting Polynesian players? You can't ignore the number of Division I prospects that come from Hawaii and the rest of Polynesia. We have to try to develop some infrastructure for them to succeed."
Tennessee did so with defensive linemen Jesse Mahelona and Jonathan Mapu, who are from Kealakehe and Kahuku.
De Fries knows from his own experience what it's like to travel far away from the islands for college, and how valuable it is to have teammates with a similar background.
"I didn't measure it in miles, I measured it in days. It took four days to get there in 1959," said de Fries, of going to school and playing football at CSU after starring at Punahou. "Fortunately, Colorado State had players from Hawaii like Leo Reed, Bill Apisa and Vince Fernandez."
Regardless of their ethnicity, de Fries enjoys helping the players learn to cope with life's challenges and take control of their own futures.
"We have a great academic staff, but a lot of the players need additional counseling, advice, mentoring. My background is similar to a lot of the players. Growing up in Kalihi in the '40s and '50s, we didn't have a lot. The thing I do is try to work with the players to expand their expectations, not just settle for the minimum," he said. "On the field and off."