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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 14, 2010

Rocha stood tall in face of adversity

By Ferd Lewis

Even as the "Fabulous Five" teams of the early 1970s went on a run of success unmatched in University of Hawai'i basketball history, their coach, Ephraim J. "Red" Rocha, stood out.

Of course, at 6 feet, 9 inches and attired in the flowery aloha print jacket of the day, he was hard to miss on the sidelines.

But while his legacy in a 10-year stay was built by taking the 'Bows to an NIT appearance at Madison Square Garden and an NCAA Tournament, he never stood taller or more impressively than in hard, challenging times.

Rocha died yesterday in Corvallis, Ore., at age 86 and while we pay tribute to his coaching success, it would be a disservice to overlook the stand-up class that he also brought.

To be sure, disservice was something he sadly came to know about the hard way at UH. When the school that he put on the national hoops map did Rocha wrong, he was the bigger man. When, as a UH basketball analyst, a TV station made him the fall guy for the ratings, he took the high road and emerged the eventual winner, being rehired.

"That was Red's style," recalled Dwight Holiday, a member of the Fabulous Five. "Even when he was wronged he handled things well."

To Rocha, who took UH from almost a club squad to a nationally ranked team, the school owes a debt like few others. Yet perhaps the most despicable chapter in Mānoa athletics and that takes in a range of choices was his firing at the team's 1973 postseason awards banquet. "A public execution" as it was known.

A disbelieving crowd heard UH President Harland Cleveland announce the "reassignment" to an, at the time, non-existent position of coordinator of a state university athletic commission.

This after a 16-10 finish amid a string of three consecutive winning seasons and less than a year removed from the first NCAA appearance. Rocha was the victim of a zone trap, one that involved elements of the worst of UH politics and outside meddling.

A regent termed UH "a monster without a head" and not for the last time there was a good man and successful coach, in part, the victim of out-of-sight expectations.

When, four years later, the runway UH athletic program was cited for 68 violations and put on NCAA probation, Rocha could have shouted, "I told you so" but didn't. "I'm not a vindictive person by nature," Rocha said.

Instead he was a willing mentor to later UH coaches and an untiring ambassador for the school.

For that, as well as his coaching acumen, Rocha will be missed.