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University of Hawaii reaching out to Japan

by Kaz Nagatsuka

The University of Hawaii athletics department is trying to build a bridge to Japan through sports, hoping it shines as brightly as a rainbow.

Due to its far-flung location in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, the University of Hawaii has had a slight disadvantage in recruiting top-notch athletes from the U.S. mainland.

And so UH quickly — and naturally — shifted its focus to nearby nations such as Samoa, Australia and New Zealand to explore different sources of talent.

In recent times, however, UH has turned its attention to Japan, with which Hawaii shares strong cultural ties (about one-third of its population is comprised of Japanese-Americans).

The UH, a Western Athletic Conference school in the NCAA, is not going to work on this latest project superficially.

Athletics director Jim Donovan and head football coach Greg McMackin traveled to Osaka and Tokyo to make inquiries about this from late February to early March. This fact-finding mission demonstrated their earnest efforts.

At the outset, McMackin made a speech before members of the Kansai American Football Coaches Association (KAFCA) about his coaching philosophies.

Donovan spoke about how collegiate athletic programs are organized the next day. Donovan and McMackin’s conviction that the project was worthwhile deepened after they actually came to Japan and gauged reactions.

“It’s real positive for us, because, from our recruiting standpoint, in the States, (there are) 48 contiguous states and us (Hawaii), but our population is so limited and there is not much recruiting going on there in general,” Donovan told The Japan Times in Tokyo.

“So it’s only natural for us to say there are other great athletes around the Pacific that nobody else really pays attention to.”

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McMackin is a respected football coach in Hawaii and is well regarded nationally. The 64-year-old defensive guru, who enters his second season at the helm this coming season, has worked extensively at the college and professional levels.

The veteran coach, who has been known as a great recruiter as well, seemed energized and excited to be a part of this new, but ongoing enterprise.

“This year, we’ve got an Australian kid and a Samoan kid, best athlete in Samoa,” McMackin said.

“And later on, we’ll get a Japanese kid and a Western Samoan kid. That’s going to be one-third of our recruiting. In five years, we will get a pretty good team. And that’s the beauty of Hawaii. It’s multicultural over there.”

Certainly, McMackin, who has had a colorful coaching career, including stints with Stanford University, the University of Miami and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, doesn’t underestimate the ability of Japanese football players.

He was the 49ers’ linebackers coach from 2003-05 and learned about this by observing Masafumi Kawaguchi, one of the best players from Japan who was invited to the team’s preseason training camps in 2002 and ’03.

“I’ve had an experience to coach the 49ers and (Kawaguchi) was there, and there is huge love for the sport in Japan,” he recalled. “Every day after the practice, there were 50 to 60 Japanese sports media.

McMackin thinks Japanese players could make an impact at wide receiver in his team’s run-and-shoot offense. Also, he believes soccer players could turn out to be good kickers as well.

McMackin’s faith and trust in Japanese players is genuine.

Japanese players who won McMackin’s favor wouldn’t even try out for the team, according to Donovan. Instead, the veteran coach would encourage them to walk on.

“If they do very, very well, then eventually they can earn scholarships,” said Donovan, a former All-WAC offensive lineman at UH.

The UH athletic department won’t limit its search for quality athletes to just football. Other sports, including basketball, baseball and volleyball, are also under consideration.

For the university, Donovan said, this will be a long-term commitment, and it won’t consist of only players. The university is considering inviting Japanese coaches and cheerleaders for exchange opportunities — examples could include coaching clinics and cheerleading events.

In mid-April, the university invited several Japanese high school and college football coaches, including Doshisha University and Kobe University, to its campus in Manoa for a coaching clinic led by McMackin and his staff.

It was intended to introduce them to UH and its football program, and to cement relationships with each other before pursuing athletes from Japan.

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The University of Hawaii is planning to hold a similar clinic, this time for basketball, sometime during the summer.

From the Japanese side, a sports management company named SES Inc. is collaborating with the university as a liaison for the school and organizations in Japan.

Kozo Suzuki, president of the company, said that the project can become an innovation for the Japanese amateur sporting scene, which has suffered massive damage from the ongoing global recession, including big setbacks for industrial leagues and clubs.

Suzuki said the merit of the program doesn’t just offer Japanese athletes opportunities to perform, but also provides chances for them to think about their long-term careers, including after their retirement as athletes.

Since it takes more time to learn English, Suzuki said that it’d be more ideal for athletes to travel to Hawaii at an earlier time. So realistically, UH will focus on bringing high school athletes to Hawaii after graduation.

“It gives more options for these high school athletes after their graduation,” he said.

“As corporate sports are declining, these athletes have anxieties that they may not be able to survive by just playing sports. So it offers them a chance to earn a college degree abroad (while playing sports) and it helps them when they enter Japanese companies in the future.

“By doing so, they learn how to think about sports and its ties with communities. It’s a long-term plan.”

Suzuki said that he has been approaching numerous high schools that have many students who had grown up abroad, so they wouldn’t face a language barrier.

Yet according to him, UH is even considering the establishment of a new program for student-athletes from Japan to help them pass necessary examinations, such as TOEFL and SAT in order to make the transition smoother for them.

Financially, Suzuki revealed that Japanese athletes could receive scholarships offered by Japanese-American communities.

“While there are many Japanese-Americans over there, as the generations are aging, they have fear that their ties with Japan are fading,” he said. “That is why they’re willing to cooperate in this project.”

This ambitious plan has just been started, and they are in no rush to complete it. But they are hoping that it will eventually become irreplaceable and valuable for both Hawaii and Japan.

“Coach Mack and I are very hopeful that we can get one or two American football players from Japan in the next few years,” Donovan said. “We will continue to work at it.

“We are also hopeful that we can get a few athletes in our other sports — maybe baseball, softball, volleyball and/or men’s and women’s basketball.”