• Steve Henson-Los Angeles Times

A Down-and-Out to the Tropics : Semones Left Crespi, Found Paradise as Football Coach in Hawaii

HONOLULU — You are walking on a moonlit Hawaiian beach with a beautiful woman. You ask her to marry you and live forever on a secluded stretch of tropical island paradise. She says yes and gives you a long kiss.

Wouldn't that be great?

Your career in paradise is coaching high school football. The players, of Samoan and Tongan descent, are huge and powerful, aggressive and dedicated.

Wouldn't that be great?

Doug Semones can state emphatically that it's more than great. It's ono, brah, which, in the Hawaii vernacular, roughly translates to: Excellent, dude.

"I've died and gone to heaven," Semones said Wednesday at his Sunset Beach home on the North Shore of Oahu.

Barely hanging onto their sanity while teaching in Watts three years ago, Semones and his wife of two years, Linda, are hanging loose teaching at Kahuku High.

They fell in love with Hawaii--and each other--during a visit in January, 1988, to watch a former high school teammate of Doug's, Vai Sikahema of the St. Louis (soon to be Phoenix) Cardinals, play in the Pro Bowl.

Six months later they fled choked freeway lanes and choking smog to gulp in a Pacific breeze and body-surf the Banzai Pipeline a few steps from their front door.

Apparently, what the North Shore is to surf, Kahuku is to football. Semones' team is made up of eager young men produced by a Polynesian culture that relishes roughhousing and risk-taking.

"This is a football area. The community is very supportive, it's a hotbed of athletes, a gold mine," bubbled Semones, who led the team to a 10-3 record last season, his first as head coach.

The 29-year-old former Cal Lutheran standout should know talent. He was a Crespi High assistant for three years, including 1986 when the Celts won the Big Five Conference championship. Another assistant from that team, Tim Lins, is Crespi's head coach.

So it is no coincidence that Crespi will face Kahuku today at 5:30 p.m. local time at Aloha Stadium as part of the Shawn Akina Memorial Prep Football Classic.

Semones suggested to Skip Akina, organizer of the event, that Crespi be invited. Lins, an All-American tight end, and Semones, the starting strong safety, were roommates and teammates at Cal Lutheran in 1981-82.

Despite the distance between them, they remain close friends.

"I'd love to coach with Tim again," Semones said.

That would require a move by Lins because Semones has no intention of leaving Kahuku. After serving as defensive coordinator in 1988 when the team was 3-7, Semones took over the reins and whipped the program into shape.

The job isn't all coconuts and cream. Semones faces obstacles a first-time head coach on the mainland would not likely encounter.

"I don't speak Samoan or Tongan and I had to pick up the pidgin English they all speak," he said. "There is also a lot of nonverbal communication. When they raise their eyebrows, they are indicating, 'Yes.' Also, the kids are taught that it's disrespectful to look into an adult's eyes.

"They were actually showing me respect and I'd be grabbing their face mask saying, 'Look at me when I'm talking to you.' "

Semones quickly quelled any suspicions the players had of him. The blond haole --person from the mainland--only looked different.

Semones was brought up in a Mormon household, and, as it happens, a majority of the people living on the North Shore are Mormon, having been converted by missionaries. Brigham Young University, Hawaii, is located in Laie, the largest of three towns from which Kahuku High draws its students.

A rite of manhood among the Kahuku players is to leap 40 feet into the crashing surf off Laie Point. Semones, who is still remembered by Cal Lutheran teammates for biting the head off a snake, is as wild and crazy as any Hawaiian. He wears a modified Mohawk haircut, and, although insisting that the assistant coaches wear shoes to practice, has tailored his program to the local culture.

"They call me the White Hawaiian," Semones said. "When our son Jake was born three months ago, he was blond and some people here were surprised he wasn't Hawaiian. They said, 'I can't believe he's such a haole .' "

Playful and carefree off the field, the players have learned discipline from Semones. They poke gentle fun at their coach for having to wear sun block at practice, but the respect he commands is clear.

"When our coach brought us together, he said, 'We're not going to mess around anymore. We're gonna work hard all the time,' " said Mark Atuaia, a senior running back who was most valuable offensive player on Oahu last season. "We can never be satisfied. When it comes down to it, we're going to try to be focused."

A red line painted by Semones runs between the locker room and the Kahuku field. When a player crosses the line, he knows it's time to get to work.

"The difference between these kids and the ones at Crespi is night and day," Semones said. "But once they are on the field, they are the same. You get these kids fired up, push the right buttons, and they have a wild attitude."

And when work is done, it's back to shorts, sandals and paani --play.

"There is no materialism at all here and it's wonderful," Semones said. "They are naive about the ways of the world. They just hang out together--these kids love to laugh, they are a breath of fresh air."

Semones gets a lot of that these days.


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