Reluctant coach left rich legacy
By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer
It was, he had maintained over and over, a job he didn't want. It was a position he finally accepted grudgingly but only, lest there be misunderstanding, for one year.
Thirty-one years and too many memories later, this is the week University of Hawai'i baseball coach Les Murakami officially leaves the "temporary" job that became a life's work.
In the wheelchair he has been confined to since his Nov. 2 stroke, Murakami will formally exit the "hobby" that long ago became both a passion and a defining achievement.
The only Division I baseball head coach the Rainbows have known says he plans to make an aloha appearance Saturday at Rainbow Stadium, the Rainbows' season finale against UH-Hilo, to "thank the fans for 30 years of support."
Clearly, however, it should be more the other way around.
Even as this team battles to try and finish above .500, Murakami leaves the program vastly better than he found it and far beyond what the Rainbows could have initially hoped for.
It was his keen vision that gave UH baseball a rich intercollegiate life and a place to showcase it.
It was his persistence, an enduring force of will that took the Rainbows from a hand-me-down club outfit to the school's most decorated men's sport.
Six Western Athletic Conference titles, 11 NCAA tournament appearances, including a national championship runner-up finish in 1980, 2.3 million through the turnstiles and 10 players to the major leagues are testament to this impressive body of work and those he enlisted to make it happen.
Off the field, the rise of the original aluminum Rainbow Stadium from the Quarry rock pile in 1975 and, in 1984, the 4,312-seat edifice that replaced it, are tributes to being able to recruit support in the behind-the-scenes games that mattered, too.
Along the way, there were stays at No. 1 in the polls, the stadium-packing legend of Derek Tatsuno and knock-down, drag-out battles with San Diego State and Brigham Young. A Who's Who of college teams and soon-to-be major leaguers paraded through Manoa.
Yet, Murakami, the coach who wouldn't dodge anybody, no matter how highly ranked, on the field at first wanted no part of the UH position.
In the beginning he was a "temporary" hire, by choice an interim coach until the school could find somebody more long term. For half his stay at UH, Murakami was but a part-time coach and full-time employee on the upper campus in Auxiliary Services. Not until 1986, after he had already amassed more than 500 victories and had one foot on the doorstep of the college baseball coaches' Hall of Fame, was he full time or on more than a year-to-year contract.
The zen-like impassivity he brought to his third base coaching box position belied the energy he infused in a program whose reins he had repeatedly turned down.
Three times Murakami, then a successful AJA League coach, rejected then-athletic director Paul Durham's requests to take over the Rainbows. It was, Murakami says, only when assistant AD Jack Bonham pleaded in desperation that he relented. "He told me, 'you've got to take it, we don't have anybody and the (1971) season is gonna start,' " that Murakami said finally caused him to give in.
"That's when I told him, 'OK, I'll tell you what, I'll take it. But, only for one year.'"
Thirty-one years later, the man who became a fixture in jersey No. 11 will finally depart the position, though he will never really leave the Rainbows.