A Rich Sports Legacy At BYU-Hawaii

Ken Wagner has been to virtually every NCAA men’s basketball Final Four since 1979, and he was there again this past weekend in Texas. As the extremely successful athletic director and head basketball coach at BYU-Hawaii, it’s a great time for him to see his coaching buddies and talk about everything involved in the world of hoops.

But this year, the talk was not just about basketball, but also about Wagner’s school. BYU-Hawaii announced at the end of this past month that it will be phasing out intercollegiate athletics at the end of the 2016-17 academic year. That’s just three more years for the Seasiders to field teams in their 11 NCAA sports.

“People find it hard to believe that a school as successful as us would be dropping their athletic program,” Wagner says. “It’s been tough, but we have to deal with it.”

Wagner knows the decision by the school’s administration and board was not reached overnight. It’s been discussed for more than 10 years.

In its public statement, BYU-Hawaii said, “With the rising costs of providing education, many alternatives have been evaluated to find ways to keep costs as low as possible for students and their families. The money being spent on athletic programs will be used to provide educational opportunities for the increasing number of students from around the world who can be served by the university.”

“I’m trying to focus on the positive,” Wagner says. “I’ve had so many people call me and say, ‘What on earth?’ or ‘How can that happen?’ I’m appreciative when I hear from those who tell me ‘BYU-Hawaii athletics changed my life.’ Or ‘It was just the greatest experience for me there.'”

Wagner says he believes the Seasiders’ outstanding athletic tradition in Laie will continue right up to the end, despite the hardship.

“When I first came here back in 1990 (for the second time; he was an assistant coach at BYU-Hawaii in 1983-84), I would tell people where I coached, and they would say, ‘Is that in Provo?’ or ‘Are you a junior college?’ or ‘Where is it?’ We’ve changed that type of thinking with our success. We’ve built up a great tradition, and something the community and the state of Hawaii can be proud of.”

Among other sports, BYU-Hawaii has won several national championships in women’s volleyball and women’s tennis. In 2014, both of those Seasider teams reached the Division II national championship contest. Just three years ago, Wagner’s men’s basketball team was also a national finalist.

“Sure, I’m proud of the championships, but I’m more proud of the great associations we’ve had with great people,” he says. “It’s tremendous to see how many who have played for us have gone on to be so successful in life.”

It’s a long list. “We’ve had many who have become coaches, but there also are artists and sculptors, professors and doctors, businessmen – virtually every walk of life you can think of,” he says.

Wagner knows that many people wonder what’s going to happen over the next three years. He’s been fielding questions wherever he’s gone the past several days – from the NIT in New York to the Final Four in Texas to the North Shore of Oahu.

“We’re still going to be good,” he says. “A bunch of coaches already have made a pact: We want to go out with a championship.”

That’s the Seasider way, short-timers or not.