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Trumbo remembered for pioneering effect on UH-Hilo athletics

  • Bill Trumbo

Under leaden gray skies Saturday morning, they gathered at New Hope Church in Hilo to remember a difference maker in athletics and community relations whose historic career touched thousands of lives.

They danced hula, they sang songs, they laughed at some of the memories and they wept, openly, at the loss of Bill Trumbo, 79, of Volcano.

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Over his career, the native Kentuckian whose family moved to California where he attended high school and college before embarking on a remarkable career as a basketball coach, was named to the Halls of Fame of five separate institutions, the last of them the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Trumbo projected a booming, optimistic personality with an entrepreneurial spirit. He engaged and enhanced relationships with the media, and felt it was his role to personally knock on doors, meet business owners, describe his vision, then persuade them to be a part of what he was building.

He led the athletic department from 1990 through 2000, orchestrating the transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division II, in most sports. His last full time post was at Konawaena High School where he was athletic director before retiring in 2016. At age 79, he passed away with advanced Alzheimer’s on Oct. 28.

Trumbo’s long career in college athletics — he was a standout basketball player in high school and college — included coaching (men’s basketball) and administrative stops at Culver-Stockton (Mo.), Sonoma State, Cal State Monterey Bay, Santa Rosa Junior College and the University of Idaho.

“The best description of Bill,” said former UHH baseball coach and athletics director Joey Estrella, who delivered an insightful, personal eulogy, “is that he was larger than life. In a nutshell, that was Bill.”

He was large enough to see a future for the school’s athletic department no one before him had seen, and no one since has been able to match.

He brought Division I basketball teams to the Big Island for tournaments, created the Vulcans Hall of Fame — something that no one else had been able to manifest — and he was smart enough to move UHH baseball to Division I.

The school went along with the high-level move in baseball, but didn’t commit the kind of money that allowed Estrella to recruit at the level required to seriously compete. Still, it was a wise financial move for the school and brought experiences for the players, coaches and fans that haven’t been duplicated ever since.

“We were playing NAIA and one day he came to me and said, ‘We’re going to go D1 in baseball,’” Estrella recalled. “I said, ‘OK, how’s that going to work?’”

Not well in wins and losses as Estrella, whose teams won over 60 percent of their NAIA games, wound up losing about 90 percent of their D1 games, yet it all made sense.

“If I had it to do all over I would do the exact same thing, just as he laid it out,” Estrella said. “It cost us about $45,000 a year to play D1, then later (with a new athletic director), they said we would go back to the lower division.”

Estrella had warned what would happen next, but the administration was still shocked when lower level baseball cost the school $60,000 a year. The administrators had not grasped the salient point Estrella made that they were getting paid to visit Division I schools, usually free rooms at a hotel, sometimes more, but those concessions were made only in Division I.

Live and learn.

Harvey Tigiri was a “20-something” athletic department employee when UHH started an athletic boosters club, which later got Tigiri close to Trumbo.

“Bill came in after that and he was the foundation for the whole department, not just baseball and basketball, all the sports, he upgraded it all, and not only as an AD, but he worked Vulcans basketball camps and so many other things.

“He sustained it,” Tigiri said, “he was the one who made the athletic department and everything in it grow. He is missed to this day.”

Before he moved to the Big Island, Trumbo worked basketball clinics here, got to know people, and at Santa Rosa Junior College, he sent a dozen players to UHH who were a part of some of the best years the school experienced.

“He was a doer,” said Jay Bartholomew, one of the players Trumbo thought would do well here. “He was always active in the community, always working with people and a lot of people here today do not realize his impact on the program; he was very unassuming, but very much forward-thinking.

“He was extremely demanding as a coach,” Bartholomew said, “he made you dig down deep, he was the kind of coach who demanded so much, he could show you things you didn’t know yourself that you had inside.

Trumbo was also right about Hilo. Bartholomew came here to attend college and play basketball. He never left.

“I fell in love with Hilo,” Bartholomew said, “thanks to Bill.”

“He took us into his family, you could put it that way,” said former UHH AD Ramon Goya, who preceded Trumbo at the school. “He took us in a new direction. He was personable, he could make things happen.”

Estrella remembers that aspect of Trumbo.

“There would be some issue to discuss, something we needed to get together on,” Estrella said, “and he’d start out by saying something like, ‘Well, Joey, tell me how you want to do it,’ and you would give your ideas and we’d keep talking and by the time we were done, we always did it his way and there were no complaints, we were all on board.”

Trumbo bent the course of history for every place he went, and he fulfilled goals most didn’t even consider possible.

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“When I think of him, I remember what my mother used to say to me when I was growing up,” Estrella said. “She said, ‘Wherever you go, whatever you do, whatever situation you’re in, always leave it better than it was when you got there.’

“That was Bill.”