Hawaiians Played Key Role in Boise State’s Early Football Fortunes

Posted on Jan 16, 2017 in Selected Articles | 0 comments

(An abridged version of the following article was originally published in the winter 2002 edition of FOCUS, Boise State University’s alumni magazine.)

By Bob Evancho


Thirty years ago Chester Grey, a freshman running back on the Boise State football team, stood on the Bronco Stadium field and gazed at the dark, wintry sky in amazement. “It was late November 1971 during practice; we were preparing for the Camellia Bowl,” the Hawaii native recalls. “We were all bundled up because of the cold. We had just run a play, and all of a sudden this white stuff started coming out of the sky.”

A newcomer to the mainland, Grey was mesmerized by the falling snow. “I looked up and little flakes started floating through my face mask. I remember how neat I thought it was and how soft they felt on my face. I just stared at the sky, lost in the moment.”

From a few yards away, head coach Tony Knap and some of his assistants watched in amusement. The 18-year-old Grey’s one-with-nature experience lasted but a few seconds as Knap’s voice pierced through the cold afternoon air. “Hey, Chester!” the coach yelled, trying not to laugh. “Get back to the huddle! We’ve got plays to run!”

Jolted back to reality by his coach’s admonition, Grey recalls feeling slightly embarrassed as he stood there gaping at what was a common wintertime occurrence in Idaho. Knap, however, wasn’t poking fun at the youngster; it wasn’t the first time the coach had witnessed one his Hawaiian players reacting to his first snowfall. “As I returned to the huddle and we ran the next play, Tony and the other coaches were still laughing,” Grey recalls. “Tony always had fun with the Hawaiian guys.”

Even those vaguely familiar with Boise State football lore are aware of the influx of gridiron talent that arrived from the Hawaiian Islands to play for the Broncos. The late Peter Kim, a Hawaiian educator with Idaho ties, began the Hawaii-Boise State connection in the 1950s, sending hopeful young islanders to faraway Idaho and what was then Boise Junior College — a place most of them had never seen — to play for a head coach many of them had never met. Fortunately for them, that coach happened to be Lyle Smith, or, beginning in 1968, Tony Knap.

The pipeline that once gushed a steady stream of football talent through the late ’50s and into the ’60s slowed to a trickle by the end of the ’70s and has all but dried up today. But the legacy of the approximately 150 former student-athletes from Hawaii who ventured stateside to play Bronco football remains — and most important, it remains with the ex-Broncos because of people like Smith and Knap.

Take 54-year-old pro football executive Adam Rita, who by his own admission, was not the most gifted Hawaiian to play football for the Broncos. Nevertheless, he considers himself one of the most fortunate islanders because he was able to benefit from the care and wisdom of both coaches.

“Basically,” he says, “those two people were the biggest influences of my adult life. Lyle Smith for being patient with me as a coach and always being positive about me, and Tony Knap for everything I know about football. He treated me like a son. I’ve had a great career, and I owe almost everything to them.”

A product of Hawaii’s Kauai High School, Rita (BA, physical education, ’70) played for Smith in 1966 and ’67 before a knee injury cut short his career. In 1968, when Smith became the Broncos’ athletic director and handed the football reins to Knap, the new coach gave Rita his first job as an assistant. Rita went on to enjoy a successful coaching career, primarily in the Canadian Football League, and is currently the general manager of the CFL’s B.C. Lions.

Now 48 years old and a veteran coach himself, Grey (BS, secondary education, ’75) also says the lessons he learned from Knap as a player (1971-74) and later as an assistant with the Bronco football program (1975-80, the last four years with Jim Criner) still influence the decisions he makes today as the track and sophomore football coach at Boise’s Borah High School. “Tony is one of the great ones; he was definitely one of my mentors,” says Grey. “When I’m coaching I think of him often and ask myself, ‘How would Tony handle this situation?’”

Smith’s former players speak with equal affection. Among them is George Tavares, the first Hawaiian to play football at BJC. “Of all the people I have met in athletics, I have never run across a man like Lyle Smith,” says the 70-year-old Caldwell resident. “There was something special about him, even when you first met him. It didn’t matter who you were or where you were from, he treated everyone the same. I think that’s one reason he did so well as a coach, all of his players played hard for him because they didn’t want to disappoint him.”

No one is naive enough to believe that each and every Hawaiian football player who came to Boise State had a warm-all-over, feel-good experience like those of Rita, Grey and Tavares. But with Smith and Knap running the show and teaching their young charges about both football and life, the vast majority of the islanders — at least the more than a dozen interviewed for this article — share memories that are similar.


They came to Boise a lifetime ago — most of them as 17- and 18-year-olds who had never been off the islands. Almost all of them arrived in Idaho sight unseen to play football, to get a college education, to see the world. For most of them, that first impression wasn’t very favorable.

“When my plane landed [in 1971] my first thought was, ‘What the hell have I done?!’” remembers Grey. “Seriously, all I saw was sagebrush. It reminded me of a western movie. I swear, I thought they were going to pick me up at the airport in a horse and buggy.”

John Kauinana (BA, secondary education, ’69) recalls having similar misgivings. A standout lineman for Kaimuki High, he accepted a scholarship from Boise Junior College in 1964 and flew to the States for the first time that summer. “On the flight from Reno to Boise it was all desert,” says the 55-year-old educator who recently retired as athletic director at Honolulu’s Mililani High School. “When the plane landed in Boise all I saw was desert; I didn’t want to get off.”

Bruce Wong (BBA, ’72), a 52-year-old teacher from Honolulu, remembers being equally alarmed when he arrived in Boise for the first time in 1967. “As we got off the plane, [fellow Hawaii recruit] Jeff Murishero and I looked at each other and said, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?!’ We saw some buildings at Gowen Field and said, ‘Is that the college?!’ I remember the desert and the heat waves coming off the runway; it was not a very inviting sight. But when Lyle picked us up and took us to the college we felt a little better.”

“I remember stepping off the plane in August; all the fields were lush because of the irrigation,” says Glenn Solem, 57, a captain with the Honolulu Fire Department who played end for Smith in 1962 and ’63. “I thought it was quite beautiful because it was so green. I kind of felt at home — that is, until the snow storms came that winter.”

Some, like Grey and Tavares, fell for the charms of the Northwest and remained in the Boise area. Others, like Rita, moved elsewhere on the continent. Many returned to the Islands and became teachers, coaches, businessmen, firemen.

On this Thursday evening in Honolulu, 48 hours before the University of Hawaii hosts Boise State at Aloha Stadium, there is a reunion of ex-Broncos from Hawaii. They have gathered with friends and spouses; some members of Boise State’s athletic department, booster club and alumni association; and a few other guests to eat, drink, reminisce and pay homage to their old coaches.

One of the coaches, the venerable Smith, is here with his wife, Eleanor, for a heartwarming reunion with his former players. Knap isn’t here, but his presence is felt just the same. To a man, the ex-Broncos, whose ages range from late 40s to mid-60s, speak about their coaches, their alma mater and their time in Idaho with warmth and affection; their words are sincere and heartfelt.

Honolulu teachers Wong and Jacob Hoopai (BA, education, ’71) are two of the lucky ones; they got to play for both Smith and Knap during Boise State’s transition from a two- to a four-year program.

Hoopai, 53, calls his experience in Boise and the opportunity to learn from both men “the greatest time in my life.” A guard and tackle from 1967-70, he was named the Broncos’ most inspirational player his sophomore and senior seasons. What initially impressed him most, he says, was the Broncos’ winning tradition.

“We were aware at the time that Boise was one of the top junior-college teams in the nation. That was impressive to a lot of Hawaiians,” says Hoopai, who has taught at McKinley High, his alma mater, for the last 31 years. “We thought it would be great to play on an outstanding team like BJC. And in the long run, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

When asked about the fondest memories of their playing days at BJC, the older players invariably begin to talk about their coach.

“In my mind, Lyle Smith is one of the greatest college football coaches of all time at any level,” says 61-year-old Honolulu union official Willie Crozier, a backup guard on the 1958 national championship team. “He is a great man; he was a father figure who gave us direction and discipline.”

Sixty-three-year-old teacher George Naukana, one of five Peter Kim recruits who came to BJC in 1956, calls Smith “one of my heroes.” Although he played just one year for BJC, earning All-America honors as a tackle, that single season in Boise made a lasting impression. “Lyle was a man of his word,” says the former Kaimuki High School coach who completed his collegiate playing career at Hawaii from 1958-60. “He treated all of the Hawaiian kids well and took good care of us; we all came back happy.”

“Coach Smith and BJC were instrumental in making a lot of us the successes we are,” says Honolulu educator Gerald Smith, 61, a member of the ’58 title team. “Quite a few of us went on to become coaches and teachers, and I know that some of us have tried to emulate him over the years in the way we have dealt with kids. I know he has been an influence on my career.”

“Boise was a great place to be,” says Kauinana, who only played one year for the Broncos because of a leg injury but remained in Boise to get his four-year degree. “There were lots of friendly people who cared about us. Going there was the best experience of my life.”

Says Hoopai: “Living in Boise was a great experience for us Hawaiians. We got to feed on potatoes instead of rice and poi. I love potatoes now.”

The cultural and language barriers, the former players say, were minor.

“A lot of us spoke broken English,” says Hoopai. “But we learned to slow down when we talked. In my case, I took English classes; that helped quite a bit.”
“We really weren’t treated any differently. With two Hawaiians already in the program, I didn’t have that feeling of isolation,” says Naukana. “I don’t recall experiencing any negative feedback or prejudice in Boise. We were treated fairly and had a great experience.”


The uncondensed story is a bit complicated and involves dozens of characters, subplots and interesting twists. Take Grey, for example.

Recruited out of Honolulu’s McKinley High in 1971 by then-Bronco assistant Rita, Grey became a Bronco assistant coach when his playing days were over and helped Criner successfully recruit David Hughes of Honolulu’s Kamehameha High in 1977. Hughes, perhaps the best-known Hawaiian to don the blue and orange, went on to play for six years in the NFL with Seattle and Pittsburgh. Hughes’ great-uncle is Peter Kim.

A star athlete for the College of Idaho in the late 1920s, Kim remained in the Treasure Valley for a number of years after he graduated from the Caldwell school, teaching and working in the area’s high school coaching ranks. Meanwhile, Smith took over as BJC football coach in 1947 and began building one of the top junior-college programs in the United States. During Smith’s early years at BJC, Kim returned to Hawaii to teach and coach at Honolulu’s Kaimuki High, but before he departed, he approached Smith about the possibility of recruiting Hawaiian football players for the Broncos, a proposition to which Smith agreed.

Back on his home turf, Kim became the Treasure Valley’s top salesman, singing the praises of Idaho’s friendly people and telling high school football players with college aspirations about the great opportunities that were available at his alma mater and Boise Junior College — the up and-coming two-year school 20 miles down the road. Among the Kaimuki athletes who took Kim’s advice was Tavares, who first matriculated at C of I, then transferred to BJC in 1952.

“When Pete returned to Hawaii he kept a soft spot in his heart for the Boise valley,” says the legendary Smith, who compiled a remarkable 156-26-6 record in his 20 years as Bronco coach. “For several years he sent Hawaiian players to both BJC and C of I.”

A sales pitch by Kim and a letter from Smith to a prospect and his coach often did the trick. “One selling point was if there was some indecision as to where a young man wanted to go to school, I would tell him that this was a good starting point,” says the 85-year-old Smith. “I always thought of that as the JC advantage. I used it as a recruiting tool all the time, and not just with the Hawaiian players. I would tell all of them that if they knew where they wanted to go and had a program all lined up, they were probably better off staying with that plan. But if they weren’t sure, they could get a good education for two years at BJC and make up their mind [about a four-year school] later.”

Since most of the Hawaiians with college football potential had never been to the mainland and college recruiters were flocking to the islands, Smith’s pitch was enticing indeed.

There were other factors that allowed the BJC football program to corner the market on the islands’ high-school football talent pool for much of the 1950s and ’60s.
First, because long-distance telecommunications, television and commercial air travel were just beginning to have their profound effect on society, Hawaii, by and large, was still perceived by many Americans — including college football recruiters — as some sort of exotic locale with uncultivated natives living in grass huts. While most college football programs didn’t give much thought to the availability of standout football players from the islands, the Broncos were able to avail themselves of those talents for a number of years before the larger schools began to horn in.

Interestingly, it was in 1959, when Hawaii became the 50th state, when the pipeline was at its peak.

The second factor was word of mouth. The pipeline was primed by Tavares’ arrival in 1952, and by the mid-1950s it was yielding a steady flow of Hawaiian athletes who told their fellow islanders about the little school in Boise that played kick-butt football. “Kids from Hawaii would go off and play at BJC and come back and tell other kids,” says Boise resident Len Chow, 61, who joined the Bronco program after he graduated from Honolulu’s St. Louis High in 1958. “One of the reasons I ended up in Boise is because I had a couple of buddies [from Hawaii] who were already on the team. It was just a chain reaction.”

Says Smith: “Once those connections got started, the pipeline pretty much became self-perpetuating.”

Third was the opportunity to experience life in another setting. Many of the Hawaiian recruits saw a scholarship to play college football as their ticket off the islands and, in some cases, a chance to escape their confined, hardscrabble existence. “A lot of them led ghetto lives; they saw going to BJC as an opportunity to go elsewhere and better themselves,” says Chow.

Tavares agrees. “When I was in high school I started to feel like I was cooped up,” he says. “I mean, in a matter of a few hours, you can drive around the entire island [of Oahu]. My brothers would never live anywhere other than Hawaii. By I like to travel and see other places, so I decided to go to Idaho. Then I later decided to stay [on the mainland].”

From a football perspective, the infusion of Hawaiian student athletes only made Smith’s JC powerhouse that much more powerful. By 1967, Smith’s last season as coach and BJC’s final year in the junior-college ranks, approximately 50 Hawaiians — including All-Americans Naukana, Herb Halliwell, Frank Kaaa, Milt Kanehe, Harry Keohola and Don Neves — played for the Broncos. Thirteen Hawaiians, including Chow, a backup guard, were on the roster of BJC’s undefeated 1958 national junior college championship team.

“The Hawaiian players had a tremendous impact on our success,” says Smith. “They were outstanding competitors with a strong work ethic.”
And when Knap took over in 1968, the tradition continued.

“I inherited quite a few Hawaiian players from Lyle, and those players helped us recruit more of them,” says the 86-year-old former coach from his home in Walla Walla, Wash. “Those kids helped form the backbone of the whole program. My perception was that they loved the school and they loved the city of Boise.

“They had a unique connection with each other. They would eat, sing, fight together. They were fun to be around, not only for the coaches, but also for the other players. There always seemed to be laughter when the Hawaiian players were around.”

One of the Hawaiians who caused a lot of laughs was Honolulu native Charlie Russell, a rough-and-tumble, 288-pound offensive tackle who came to Boise State in 1973 with an, um, checkered background. At the Thursday evening reunion the 56-year-old Russell laughs, croons karoaka at the bar and visits with Smith and his fellow ex-Broncos.

But during a serious moment, he is asked about the impact that Boise State has had on him. It’s been more than 25 years since his playing days, but his response is immediate. His story began, he says, in 1972 when he wrote to Knap from prison in Washington state, asking for a chance to play college football. “I was aware that there were several Hawaiians who had played at Boise State,” he says. “Tony wrote back and I eventually ended up in Boise.

“I was definitely rough around the edges; very quick to react. But Tony really worked on me. Some people expected a Hawaiian guy with a short fuse like me to mess up, and sometimes I did. Sure, I was impulsive. But Tony and the other coaches never gave up on me. I came to Boise State a convict and I had that mind-set when I first got there. But Tony and others there taught me how to simmer down, how to study and how to work at becoming successful.”

And Russell did just that, returning to Hawaii and eventually becoming vice president for a Honolulu travel agency.

“I owe all that to Boise State. I turned the corner at Boise State because they cared about me. I’ll tell you what. If Tony called me today and said he needed me, I’d be in Walla Walla tomorrow.

“It was a great time in Boise. The coaches, the guys I played football with and the people I met were all family; it was like an extended family.”

Ohana. In Hawaiian it means family.

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