Over at Waiakea High School, they have a history of achievement in recent years, ranging from science teams that have traveled to Japan and outperformed college teams to competitive athletic programs in most all boys and girls sports.
Most, because there’s been an issue with football, which remains the featured athletic program at virtually every high school and college in the country that can afford to field a team.
Baseball may be the national pastime, but football, for better or worse, has been our national obsession. Waiakea has produced baseball players now earning hefty salaries at the professional level, and some football players have gone on to college careers, but the football program itself has been in a kind of slow motion implosion for most of the last 20 years.
From 1994-97, the school won consecutive BIIF titles with coach Tom Lino, but those were the last Big Island championships in a sport with outsized interest at other schools. Last year, Waiakea slumped to 1-9 and 0-7, the first time it had not won a BIIF game.
“We have had a lot of turnover (in the direction of the football program), and that is no doubt a big part of it,” said Waiakea principle Kelcy Koga, “but we have had growth, we have had players come in like boys and leave like young men.
“But in my opinion, Neil (Azevedo) is very passionate about the players, the people we have here and he will be the one to turn this in the right direction.”
Waiakea is used to change in football, to the point that you expect to find a revolving door leading to the coach’s office, but this is different.
The school hired a graduate, Neil Azevedo, a former linebacker who played some football at Portland State, then pitched for Mike Mayne at Orange Coast College until his shoulder gave out. Since his college days, Azevedo, from a family with 10 bothers and sisters, learned about life, learned about people and learned some things about respect.
He’s about to unleash his particular views of life and creative growth on the football team at his alma mater, and the consequences of this new role would appropriately be categorized as a radical makeover for Waiakea.
If he can achieve what he hopes to, you will see things from Waiakea football that you may have never previously seen in football. He’s blowing up the model, trashing the design, starting all over.
“I’m so excited about this, I can’t hardly express it,” Azevedo said the other day over lunch, “and from what I saw when we had our first meeting, these kids seem excited. That’s really all I can ask for, give me your enthusiasm and your trust and I’ll give you mine. Together, we can do this.”
He knows some football. Azevedo can break down plays and give you the coach-speak you hear from most all of them, but what you don’t get is stuff about running the ball, stopping the run, relying on this offense or that defense.
This a football program built around the promise of challenging opponents to be prepared for the unexpected.
He isn’t completely sure who will play where, whether there will be one or four quarterbacks, what kind of defense they will line up in on first and 10, but Azevedo is bound and determined to develop a communication with his players that will transcend such minor details.
“We had 53 kids show up at our meeting,” he said of the first gathering for Waiakea football a couple weeks back, “and I told them, ‘I’m here to represent you guys, to respect you guys, and I want to get that back, this is your football team, we will be the kind of team you guys want to be.”
Azevedo won’t be calling plays, he won’t be calling defenses.
“I hope we get our players buying in and doing that,” he said, “this is for them, it’s their team. We want players telling our coaches what they know they can do, how they can make plays.”
Meanwhile, Azevedo will coach special teams, which he mentioned with a knowing smile.
“That,” he said, “is where games are made or broken. We will have special attention on special teams.”
One of his ideas is that the standard routine of dropping back to form a wall for the kickoff returner is all wrong.
“You won’t see us back up on a kickoff, that’s not what we do,” he said. “I don’t believe you play football by giving ground, by backing up. When the ball is kicked, our guys up front will be on the attack.”
Azevedo’s approach came into focus the last few years when he was overseeing sewer pipe installations in his job with the Hawaii County highways office. The complexity of the situation is a story in itself, but the center of it had to do with a crew that included only a few trained workers, and it was suggested in order to save time, he should use those employees only on the technical aspects of the job they knew best.
Not his approach.
Azevedo battled to take the time to train the whole crew to do everything. They got off to a slow start, fell behind on the schedule but as workers learned their new roles the efficiency picked up, they set records for the amount of work they could do in a day and finished ahead of schedule with a motivated crew.
If you take that blueprint and apply it to high school football, you have an idea of what Azevedo wants to accomplish at Waiakea.
The beauty of it, for him, is that Azevedo applied for the same job six years ago and didn’t get a whiff of a chance.
“Probably the best thing that happened to me as a coach,” he said. “I was not ready for it, I would have been another guy who couldn’t get it done because back then I couldn’t see the big picture, I had a limited view.”
The big picture is a football program where everyone who turns out has a chance and everyone who contributes gets the respect of everyone else and then gives it back.
“My goal,” he said, “is to be in a football program where everyone gives 100 percent. Every kid will get an index card with questions, ‘What do you want to establish by the end of the year,’ and it will have a spot for the team and a spot for the individual player.
“At midseason, we will go through it with everyone — how’s the progress? Shall we tweak it? Are you ahead of where you thought? — and we’ll go from there.
“We will never change a kid to make him do what we want, we will lean on every kid’s own ability, what they do best. If we have 10 kids who want to try playing quarterback, they will all get their chances, the goal is to get everyone in the position they are most well-suited for. You can play two or three positions? We can work on that, too.”
In May, he will get an opportunity to work with players in two weeks of drills, no hitting, but 7-on-7 drills, conditioning, framing a group approach.
The weight room is open, the coach isn’t demanding players be in there every day.
“We will have a few getting going in there,” he said. “The word will spread. If others want to join, they will, if not, that’s OK. Either way, it needs to come from inside the team, not from me demanding things.”
This promises to be more than just a makeover, more than just a coach saying things the previous guy didn’t say.
It’s a whole new direction for Waiakea football where they turned the page on the past and find themselves headed into the future, face to the wind.
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