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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

Papali'i will coach football at Kealakehe

By Dennis Anderson
Advertiser Staff Writer

Sam Papali'i, a successful college assistant football coach for 19 years, has been appointed head coach at Kealakehe, the four-year old high school in Kona that Big Island observers have called the next giant in Hawai'i public-school sports.

Papali'i was interviewed on Monday, hired on Thursday and held his first staff meeting yesterday to prepare for the start of spring practice on Monday.

"I'm excited to be in a program that is a sleeping giant," Papali'i said. "Kealakehe is basically a reflection of all the different ethnic groups in Hawai'i. There is a melting pot of students on that campus, more so than most campuses I've been to.

"There is a tremendous upside to this and I'm fortunate to have this opportunity to try to develop winning program here."

Papali'i noted that Kealakehe had a winning record, 5-4, last fall in its third season of varsity football. It is the fastest growing school in the state and already has the third largest enrollment on the Big Island with 1,475, including 807 boys.

Papali'i, a 1975 St. Louis School graduate, moved back to Hawai'i in 1998 after the entire UNLV staff he was part of was fired and John Robinson was hired as head coach.

"I felt like it was time to come back home, to be closer to my mom. (She was ill and has since passed away.) And my wife's family lives on the Big Island."

He has been working as a mental health counselor in Kona for a company contracted by state.

Papali'i was one of first two full-time Division I full-time football coaches of Samoan ancestry.

After beginning his coaching career at De Anza community college in northern California from 1980-82, he became an assistant at University of Hawai'i from 1983-86. He went to Arizona with Dick Tomey from 1987-89, then was assistant head coach to Ron McBride at Utah from 1990-93.

He came home in 1993 when his father was terminally ill, then returned to college coaching from 1994-96 at Iowa State. He moved "closer to home" to UNLV in 1997-98.

At Utah and UNLV, Papali'i signed a number of top Hawai'i prospects. One season Utah had 21 players from Hawai'i on its roster, many recruited by Papali'i. UNLV had eight.

Papali'i said he hopes to use his recruiting skills on campus at Kealakehe, which is on a hilltop north of Kailua town.

"I'm going to recruit kids on campus who are on the fence about playing," Papali'i said. "I want to encourage kids academically, to get them motivated for football and college. I want to let kids know there is great opportunity out there for you — you can use your skills to get a college education.

"Part of my job as a high school head coach is to educate parents, too, about the life-lessons learned on the football field."

"I hope to convince them that their family can be part of a winner and a classy program."

Papali'i said Kealakehe is losing a lot of three-year veterans in its first senior class, which graduates in two weeks, so he will devote nine days of spring practice without pads, starting tomorrow, to "learning how to practice and position-related fundamentals with very limited conceptual work."

Practice will be set aside five days next week for final examinations.

"It's an exciting challenge," Papali'i said.