Monday, May 16, 2022|
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HONOLULU — In a matter of days (hours?), the University of Hawaii at Manoa will announce the selection of a new athletic director.
Media reports have identified Sheraton Hawaii Bowl/Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic executive director David Matlin as the person recommended by the school’s official search committee, while Island Holdings senior vice president Keith Amemiya is an “at-large” candidate, so to speak. Amemiya was not interviewed by the search committee, but did meet separately with Manoa Chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman.
It is now supposedly up to Bley-Vroman to choose either Matlin or Amemiya by March 31, and then the selection will be presented to the Board of Regents for approval on April 16.
Given the choice between Matlin and Amemiya, it would appear Amemiya is more of what UH athletics is looking for and needs right now: a Hawaii business insider who has strong ties to potential sponsors and donors (both corporate and individual); someone who is known to think “outside the box” and generate fresh ideas and a “can-do” spirit; a UH alum who literally has institutional knowledge and an understanding of the university; and a leader who can connect himself to the department staff — and UH to the community — and provide a morale boost to both.
More so than Matlin, Amemiya seems to offer that total package.
Here is a look at why:
• Hawaii business insider: Amemiya took over as executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association shortly after the non-profit organization became separated and autonomous from the state Department of Education, meaning it was now responsible for all of its own funding. Amemiya thus had to secure and maintain title sponsorships for each of the 20 different championship events throughout the year. These sponsorships ranged from $5,000 to $100,000 per year, and includes a $200,000 endowment from the Wally Yonamine Foundation for baseball.
Doing this over an 11-year span, Amemiya built strong business contacts with corporate executives and philanthropists alike, and partnered with them to fund not just existing state tournaments, but new ones like football (Division I and II), air riflery, judo, cheerleading and canoe paddling.
With those relationships already in place, Amemiya is well-positioned to hit the ground running as far as partnering UH with those same resources and others.
· “Outside-the-box” fresh ideas, “can-do” spirit: Almost everyone agrees that UH’s current business model no longer is effective, since the athletic department reportedly has run annual deficits in all but one of the past 12 or 13 years.
Back in 1998, Amemiya sensed (or knew) that the HHSAA needed a similar spark, that it was in a bit of a doldrum after years of football dominance by Saint Louis and a similarly widening gap between the bigger and smaller programs in other sports. He immediately took action by spearheading the creation of a football state tournament, and then later pushed to expand it to include “Division II” schools.
The concept spread to other sports and has nearly doubled the opportunities for kids and their families to participate in the excitement of a state tournament experience.
To further increase the brand identity and profile of high school sports, Amemiya put together a nationally acclaimed football doubleheader featuring the country’s No. 1 program, De La Salle, and another California powerhouse, Long Beach Poly, against local juggernauts Saint Louis and Kahuku. The doubleheader drew national media coverage and a crowd of 27,811 to Aloha Stadium.
Amemiya also initiated a 2007-08 project to refurbish Roosevelt’s aging Ticky Vasconcellos Stadium with a new synthetic playing field and track, combining forces by securing a grant from the NFL, funds raised by Roosevelt’s alumni and the state legislature. It was the first of several public school stadium refurbishments that have taken place since.
· Institutional knowledge: As current UH athletic director Ben Jay learned the hard way, there are many internal, bureaucratic and political obstacles in getting things done at UH, not to mention varied personalities, cultural differences and “tribal knowledge” issues to navigate at Manoa.
Amemiya has a Bachelor’s in Business Administration (finance) and Juris Doctorate degree from UH, and he served for two and a half years as Executive Administrator and Secretary to the Board of Regents. So he has first-hand experience with the UH system.
Also, through his operation of the HHSAA, he built working relationships with longtime UH athletics personnel like Stan Sheriff Center manager Rich Sheriff, Les Murakami Stadium manager Glenn Nakaya and Makai Campus Coordinator Kyle Tengan.
Amemiya is also familiar with head coaches like Dave Shoji, Norm Chow, Michele Nagamine, Bob Coolen.
Jon Kobayashi, president of UH’s booster club ‘Ahahui Koa Anuenue, is a family friend.
Not to mention, Amemiya himself has been a longtime fan and booster of UH, so he has been through the highs and lows and everything in between from that perspective.
Which leads to …
· Connecting to the department and community: The UH athletic department staff is loyal and hard-working, and it has constantly been asked to do more with less. Of course, a financial boost could do wonders, but maybe more important is a change in culture.
We have all heard enough about what UH does NOT have, in terms of money, facilities, resources, etc. The seemingly endless string of bad news on campus combined with news about how the “Power Five” conference schools are getting richer – just widening the gap between UH and the “haves – can wear down on a staff and affect morale, whether anyone admits it or not.
The same can hold true for the general public.
But it is amazing what “new blood” and a change in culture can sometimes do for a program. Sometimes, it’s not just the “big” things, but also a steady collection of “little” things that can drag a department down – or lift it up.
One less-publicized – but nonetheless crucial – initiative that Amemiya brought almost immediately to the HHSAA was the creation of a Director of Information position. To his credit, Amemiya realized and understood the power of the media in shaping and promoting his brand, and made an investment via the Director of Information position to produce and distribute press releases including schedules, records, rosters, brackets, tournament history, etc. to members of the media for every tournament. This new Director of Information also helped coordinate game operations and deliver results and statistics to the media in a timely fashion.
It was sort of a “behind the scenes” and seemingly uneventful move, but one that elevated the entire program and paid great dividends over the long haul by helping the media promote the state tournaments and high school athletics in general.
And by utilizing the media to help promote high school athletics and also connecting with the public directly through events like the Great Aloha Run and Pro Bowl Clinics, Amemiya was able set the stage for the biggest community/corporate project of them all – the “Save Our Sports Campaign” which raised close to $1.5 million in just seven months to help offset a 35-percent cut to public school athletics state allocations.
Now, it is indeed an enormous leap from HHSAA executive director to UH AD, and the biggest question surrounding Amemiya is his lack of collegiate experience and Mainland contacts/connections.
But similar questions were magnified when he took over the HHSAA as an attorney with no athletic administrative background, and he more than proved he could handle the transition. Amemiya not only garnered support for the HHSAA locally, but also earned leadership roles within the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations despite being the youngest executive director in the country and being one of only a handful of minorities in that position.
Amemiya and the HHSAA also took over the High School Hall of Honor program in time of need and brought in keynote speakers like Bill Walsh and Roy Williams. So he is not shy about working with his Mainland counterparts or interacting with people from bigger programs.
Reflecting on Amemiya’s 1998 hiring at the HHSAA, former HHSAA president Tony Ramos said, “Raising funds was a big issue. It was a real change to move from the state (agency) mentality, We realized that it’s a business, and we needed to run it like a business. Keith was young, enthusiastic and energetic, and we needed that fresh approach.”
Added Dan Arita, president of Data House and a member of that 1998 selection committee: “My take was, let’s find somebody who is younger with energy, who can give us longevity. We wanted somebody with an entrepreneurial kind of spirit.”
In 1998, the right man for that HHSAA job was Keith Amemiya.
Today, Keith Amemiya appears to be the right man for the job of UH athletic director.
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