Lee brothers built a life with sports
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
In the Lee family, memory doesn't fail, but it does sometimes conflate.
If this were a film, a novel, an epic poem even, their life together would be told in a series of scenes, each richly fleshed in vivid detail. But left to the collective memory of men in twilight, the details, I-remember-whens, have instead given way to just a few simple but meaningful conclusions.
"We've always been close," says eldest sibling Tommy.
"We all loved sports and that gave us a closeness that lasts until this day," says middle child Ron.
"Togetherness," says Cal, the youngest.
In fact, the ties that bind Hawai'i's preeminent coaching family family and sport, sport and family have remained strong precisely because they cannot be defined by a few unique, discrete anecdotes.
For University of Hawai'i offensive coordinator Ron Lee, defensive coordinator Cal Lee and recently retired Montana-Western head coach Tommy Lee, it was the unbroken continuity of unremarkable days and years together the practices, the game days, the endlessly intertwining career paths that reveal the depth of their family's commitment to each other.
At UH home games, Ron and Cal don't need to scan the stands to know where their parents are. They know that long before the rest of the crowd arrive, their father, Thomas slowed but not stopped by arthritis will have already wheeled himself to the south end zone where he and wife Hazel will sit together until the last whistle. They know also that their older brother, two time zones away, is also keeping track of their success.
"I always wanted my boys to play sports," says Hazel. "I didn't know that they would all coach, but it's what they love and they've done well for themselves."
It was love of sport, Thomas Lee says, from which the loving family grew.
Unbeknownst to his mother, who feared the injury the sometimes brutal game might inflict on her son, Thomas was an accomplished fullback by the time he reached his teen years. With nothing but a thick sweatshirt to absorb the contact, Thomas played with a selflessness he learned by his mother a widow who worked long hours at Waimano Home to pay her son's $9-a-month tuition at Saint Louis and an intensity and intelligence he would eventually pass on to his young sons.
"I loved the game, loved the contact," Thomas says. "I played until I couldn't run anymore."
Raised by her Portuguese grandparents and heavily influenced by her athletically inclined uncles, Hazel Lee was already a devoted sports fan when she and Thomas met.
It was a courtship that developed one Sunday at a time.
Each weekend, Hazel would visit her Hawaiian grandfather at his home on Mokihana Street. It wasn't long before she noticed the group of young men who congregated down the street, and in particular the athletic and personable one they called Tom.
"That was where our romance blossomed," Hazel says.
Thomas and Hazel would eventually have a house of their own where kids from around the neighborhood would gather to play with their three sports-crazy sons.
"My boys played everything football, baseball, basketball," Thomas says. "And my house was just like the park."
And whatever sport the Lee boys pursued, they pursued together.
"Everything we did was with each other," Cal says. "It wasn't like one goes here and another goes there. Where you might have friends outside your family, my brothers were my friends."
To ensure that his sons made it to all of their various practices and games, Thomas, who worked on the waterfront for Matson, made a habit of volunteering for night shifts.
"That gave me a lot of time with my boys," Thomas said. "I'd run around with them all day and rest when I got to work. I had no social life. I was always with my boys."
Yet, sports were only one part of the Lee family equation. As they encouraged their children's athletic explorations, Thomas and Hazel also made sure they understood what it would take to be successful in life.
"My husband and I really pushed our boys to get their diploma and go to college so they could get a good job," Hazel says. "We always checked who they were around and we pushed them to complete their education."
And while Thomas coached and guided his sons on and off the field, it was Hazel's steadfast presence that anchored the family.
"My mother doesn't get much credit, but she was right there with us in a silent way," Tommy says. "She'd go to church every day to pray for our family.
Whenever there was a game or an event, she was the team mom. She was our strength."
Tommy and Ron followed their father's footsteps to Saint Louis; Cal attended the recently opened Kalani. All three were excellent athletes, particularly in football.
Cal credits his father with stoking his passion for football with unwavering positive support and advice.
"He was ahead of his time," Cal said. "Even when we were losing, he never said anything negative, never blamed the coaches or the players. I think if he had been negative, I might have gone away from the game."
As Hazel had hoped, sports also provided a structure and motivation for her boys to succeed.
"To be honest, I wasn't the best student," Cal says. "I was at the bottom of the pack, but I knew that I had to work hard academically to be able to play. The great gift is that sports help you to attain goals that might not even realize are there at the time. I hate to think where I would be now if I wasn't fortunate to have two loving parents to help me achieve that."
Tommy would go on to earn All-America honors as a quarterback for Willamette University in Oregon. Ron and Cal, an All-American at linebacker, would also play for the school after stints in junior college.
After playing professionally in Ottawa, Tommy began his coaching career as an assistant at Central Catholic High School in Portland, Ore.
In 1971, Tommy returned to Honolulu to take over as head coach of his alma mater. His first call was to his brother Cal, then an assistant coach at Willamette.
"He asked me if I wanted to come home," Cal recalls. "So I said, 'When do I leave?'"
Tommy would coach the Crusaders for just one season before returning to Willamette as an assistant.
Thus proceeded the pattern of criss-crossing careers for the Lees.
Cal applied to replace Tommy at Saint Louis. That same off-season, Ron, applied for the head coaching position at Kalani, where he was working as an assistant.
Both agreed to join the other's staff if one got a head coaching job and the other didn't. By the time the season rolled around, both were leading their respective programs.
Ron later took over the head coaching position at Kaiser, where Cal joined him as an assistant. Together, they led the Cougars to four consecutive Honolulu District titles and a Prep Bowl championship in 1979.
"It wasn't always easy, and we weren't always successful in the beginning," Cal says of his early coaching career. "But our parents were always there supporting us. We didn't want to disappoint them. My mom would come to games but she wouldn't watch, she'd be praying for us. We never wanted to let her down."
The lines of intersection would continue, with Ron returning to Willamette as an assistant. When Cal returned to Saint Louis for a second stint as head coach, Ron signed on as the Crusaders' offensive coordinator.
Reunited, Cal and Ron turned Saint Louis into a national powerhouse. Under the Lees, the Crusaders would win 14 Prep Bowl titles, 18 Interscholastic League of Honolulu championships and the inaugural Hawai'i High School Athletic Association state championship, inspiring equal measures of respect, fear and despondency throughout the local prep landscape.
The Lee brothers' success would continue with Tommy coaching at Portland State, San Antonio's World League entry, at Montana-Western, Ron at Oregon Tech and Saint Louis, and Cal at St. Louis (as athletic director) and the Hawaiian Islanders arena football team.
Ron joined the Warriors as an assistant in 1999. Cal would join him four years later. This season, the Lees will play their most prominent role with the team as the Warriors seek to follow up on the program's most successful season ever.
"We pushed them so that they could one day get good jobs and live happy lives," Hazel says. "I didn't know that they would all be coaching, but we don't mind because that's their passion and they are helping others."
Through it all, Thomas and Hazel have remained constant, attending every game they can, and the brothers have remained in close contact, renewing their great coaching debates whenever Tommy returns home.
Each Sunday, the Lees attend church together at Star of the Sea, then retire to Zippy's for their weekly family breakfast.
"We've been hanging out since we were kids and we're still hanging out," Cal says.
The Lee lineage in coaching continues with Tommy's son Pohai, the former Damien athletic director, assuming the role of offensive coordinator at Montana-Western.
"I'm not a boastful person, but I am awfully proud of my sons," Thomas says. "My wife and I have good boys."
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.