By JORDAN IKEDA
A good coach is a rare commodity because in order to be considered good, one has to be consistently good. The coaching profession is a fickle entity. One year you’re the toast of the town, the next you’re cleaning out your desk. Ask former Hornets coach Byron Scott, NBA coach of the year two seasons ago, or perhaps chat up Charlie Weis over at Notre Dame.
To be good at coaching, it not only takes a wealth of basketball knowledge, communication skills and obsessive dedication, it also takes a great deal of faith in your system, faith in your players, and a whole hell of a lot of luck.
Jeff Hironaka, thus far, has been able to find the right mixture of all of these elements. In April, the former head coach of Seattle Pacific University took on an assistant coaching position to Ken Bone (who he worked with at SPU) at Washington State University. Entering into the Pac-10, Hironaka now finds himself as the highest-ranking Japanese American coach in the nation.
“I never thought about it much until people asked me about it,” Hironaka told the Rafu Shimpo in regards to his place in the coaching heirarchy. “What would I like to do with it? I’d like to be a head Division I coach somewhere. Would I like to be a Pac-10 head coach? Sure. Is that realistic? Ehhhh, I don’t know. Low D-I, if we do well. If we don’t do well, we’re all done anyway.”
Hironaka, who looks part mad scientist (it’s the hair), part astrophysicist (it’s the glasses) and full time basketball coach (it’s the warm-ups) has a sly, somewhat self-deprecating humor about him that bubbles up through all the basketball jargon and his stream-of-consciousness chatter. But don’t be fooled by his exterior.
His hesitation at projecting a move up the coaching ladder to D-I does not come from a lack of a resume.
During his 18 years at SPU, including 11 years serving as Bone’s chief aide, the Falcons amassed a 370-154 record, earned seven conference championships and qualified for NCAA Division II Tournament berths 13 of the last 16 years.
As the head coach of SPU the past seven seasons, Hironaka’s teams have gone 134-67 highlighted by seven consecutive winning seasons and five consecutive appearances in the NCAA D-II Tournament. In 2006, Hironaka’s Falcons won 26 games and matched the school’s best NCAA Tournament result, reaching the final four and capturing the first of back-to-back conference championships. Of course, with the winning have come awards as well. Hironaka is a two-time GNAC Coach of the Year and was named the 2006 NABC West Region Coach of the Year.
As one can readily see, the resume is about as sparkling as a person can ever hope to achieve—a Phil Jacksonesque winning percentage and a whole closet full of hardware to show for it. So it’s not the lack of a resume.
Nor is it a lack of drive.
“I think he and Kobe (Bryant) would get along very well because of their work ethic,” Bob Kroeze, a friend of Hironaka’s and former teacher, told the Rafu.
“He’s so conscientious about his job that he thinks that he shouldn’t be going to a movie or a ball game,” said Bob Fujii, another close friend who has opened up his house for Hironaka over the past 18 years when the coach is out recruiting in the greater Los Angeles area. “It bothers him that he’s not doing recruiting work or watching film. He overdoes that…He’s taken maybe three total days of vacation. He’s that type of person.”
There is no lack of drive, not from a man who hasn’t missed a single day of early morning running over the past five years.
Instead, the lack of hope for upward movement, that hesitation in Hironaka’s expectations, comes more from what he is not.
“I mean you try to name a Japanese coach in the Pac-10,” he said. “I mean, Rex Walters, he’s a hapa at the University of San Francisco and that’s really it. Other than Bill Fujikawa at Arizona State back in the 50s, other than him, there’s nobody. Dave Yanai was very successful at Cal State L.A. and I was fortunate enough to be fairly successful at SPU. But as an Asian male, you’re not much of a commodity because there aren’t any Asian players that are high caliber talent. So you don’t bring a lot to the table that way. If you look at the coaches in the NCAA, you’ve got a lot of African American players, so you need African American coaches or assistants because you need someone on the staff who can identify with the players you’re recruiting.”
If that assessment sounds harsh, it’s because it rings truth. In fact, harshness has been a lifelong companion to Hironaka, and being able to deal with that reality and make adjustments has made him an excellent coach.
“Nobody ever gave me anything,” he said, more in a matter-of-fact tone than one of grouse. “I’ve had to bust my hump, making no money working small colleges. There were a lot of years of sacrificing. No marriage, no family. None of that stuff. I don’t recommend that to most…But I’m pretty stubborn.”
Hironaka’s family relocated to Weiser, Idaho after being released from the internment camps back in the 40s. Weiser became the Sansei’s home where he played hoops from first grade on. He was an All-Snake River Conference guard in high school before going on to Eastern Oregon where he was a three-year varsity letterman.
“I was a scrub college player,” he said, again with the self-deprecating humor. “So I always got to sit on the bench and just watch. I got interested in it. When you’re sitting on the bench and watching you think, ‘Hey, I kind of want to do this.’”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in secondary education, he moved back to his hometown and did it, taking a job coaching junior high basketball. Over a 5-year period, he moved up to J.V. then to varsity, before taking a job in Eastern Idaho.
“We won zero games. They weren’t very good. But that’s the kind of jobs you’re going to get,” Hironaka said. “After that, I went to interview for another job at a small high school and got it. So I went from a team that didn’t win any games to another team that didn’t win any games. My first year, we won four games at the small school. That’s four more than they won the year before, so they thought I was king.”
From there, he coached at a large high school before getting recognized by the head coach at Idaho State who was watching his son play against Hironaka’s team. He then became the assistant at Idaho State where he stayed for three years. That last season, the team wasn’t very good, so the staff was released.
Hironaka’s job hunting brought him out to California in the Santa Clarita Valley, where he took a coaching job at Master’s College from 1990-91. After that, he was offered the assistant coaching position under Bone at SBU.
Eighteen years later, Bone and Hironaka are once again reunited with a team that features eight freshman and seven sophomores, and in the Pac-10 no less.
“Jeff will be an outstanding addition to our staff here at Washington State,” Bone told the media back in April. “Jeff brings a wealth of coaching experience as both an assistant and head coach where he has had a tremendous amount of success. His energy and passion for the game are second to none.”
“The goal right now this first year,” Hironaka said, “is to incorporate the new system. Get the players to grasp the system, believe in the system. Because if they don’t it’s not going to work. It’s based on guys doing their job and everybody buying into playing as a team. I don’t need the best players, I need the best team. And that’s what you need to sell. The best team can beat the most talent.”
If his words sound familiar, perhaps it’s because, like countless other coaches across the U.S., Hironaka admires John Wooden whom he met and had a five-hour chat with several years ago.
“John Wooden did it with all types of characters, all types of people. Tall teams, short teams, fast teams, slow teams. It didn’t matter the team he had. He was always able to figure the best way to win. The system was always the same for the most part. He made the right adjustment. He said the right things. Half the battle is saying the right things to your players to get them to believe that they can do it. I admire what he was able to do.”
Hironaka has a long way to go to reach the Wizard of Westwood, but he’s on the right path. His goal is to always be more prepared than the opposition, and he works tirelessly towards that goal.
“My philosophy,” he said, “is that if you work hard and do the right things and you hopefully know what you’re doing, then it will pay off somewhere down the line.”
At the heart of that philosophy?
Why consistency of course…
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For those who want to check out Jeff in action, the WSU Cougars come to L.A. to play the USC Trojans at the Galen Center on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010. They then play the UCLA Bruins at Poly Pavilion on Saturday, Jan. 23.