Legendary UH Women’s Volleyball Coach Dave Shoji Recounts Career Highs and Lows in New Book
UH legend Dave Shoji became the winningest coach in women’s volleyball last season. Now he has a new book out. In it, he recounts the highs, the lows and what it’s like behind that famous focus.
Photo: Mark Arbeit
Dave Shoji’s name has become synonymous with women’s volleyball through four decades of coaching the University of Hawai‘i’s Rainbow Wāhine team, which has won four national championships and is a fixture in the rankings.
Yet Shoji remains somewhat private as a person. Sure, he’s the steely-eyed coach who barks directions at his players and is comfortable doing post-game analyses on TV, but he reveals little about the man behind the wins.
In the introduction to the book, Shoji explains that this biography only came about because he found someone who could work with him at the right time, despite some limitations: “First, I’m a terrible writer. Second, I’m a man of few words. And third, there was no way for me to begin to know how to start this complicated process. So I asked the person who knows more about the program and more about me than just about anybody in the world besides my wife, Mary, to help. That would be Ann Miller, recently retired longtime sportswriter for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser (and The Honolulu Advertiser).”
Here are some excerpts from the book, including quotes from his former players:
Dave Shoji in 1975.
Archive photos: Courtesy UH Athletic Department
When I was in college, if you weren’t full-time in school, taking 15 hours, you were classified 1-A for the draft. Everybody who had student status had a 2-A exemption. One quarter, I had to drop a class, I was not doing well, so I just had 12 credits. It was amazing how fast the draft board knew I only had 12 credits. … Then I made the All–Armed Forces team, which went on to travel and play for a month at various tournaments around the country. When I got back, I had under one year left in the service. The rules then were that they couldn’t send you out if you had less than one year left to serve. I had no idea that would happen. My commanding officer had no idea, and he was not happy about it. The Army was not happy about it, but those few weeks ended up leaving me less than a year and kept me out of Vietnam.
Donnis Thompson was an African-American woman from Chicago’s South Side. She said she got into track and field because that was the one sport where “the racist element was not that important.” UH hired Donnis as a professor in the ’60s, and she became the interim women’s athletic director in 1973, the year after Rainbow Wāhine athletics started with volleyball and track and a $5,000 budget. Athletic director was a part-time position, and Donnis was also an associate professor of health and PE.
Donnis was a tough one to work for because she had all the vision, but we didn’t have money to back anything up. I had no sense about women’s athletics, no idea who Patsy Mink was, didn’t really understand Title IX. (Editor’s note: The late Hawai‘i Rep. Patsy Mink championed and co-authored the federal law passed in 1972 that mandated gender equity in sports and other educational programs that receive federal funding.)
Donnis was riding Title IX to get things going, but to me it was what any team was entitled to. If you’re going to have a team, you should have laundry services, you should have balls, you should have practice times. I didn’t get why it was Title IX that got us these things. In my mind, if you wanted to have a team, you had to provide support in a manner where there was a chance to win.
But volleyball was still a minor sport, and we just didn’t have anything. We stayed at Motel 6 on the road, and it was actually $6, and four to a room. Donnis Thompson, with a keen eye toward publicity, wanted to open the 1976 season at the Blaisdell Center. It would be our first official home match, which made the eventual sellout unbelievable.
I thought it was silly to go to the Blaisdell and play. Donnis always had big dreams, big visions, but I could never see the future the way she could. She was the kind of person who said, we are going to do this, and never had any doubts. I really don’t know who bought all those tickets. All I know is I was dumbfounded at how many people were there. Of course we were all very nervous—no one had ever dreamed of playing in front of so many people. But, once we started, we just concentrated on the match. To be honest, I was more nervous about the net setup, which we had to design the day of the game. The Blaisdell had nowhere to anchor the poles, so we strung cable from net poles to the floor, but they were not very stable.
dave shoji In 1983.
TV does make you coach differently. The cameras are right in your face, especially when you make a mistake, and there is no escape. We are constantly reminding our players not to swear. Our bench demeanor is also picked up by TV, everybody sees it, so we talk a lot about how to conduct yourself if you’re not in the game. The girls would say things like “frick,” then claim, “I’m not swearing,” but it looks like you are. Or saying “sugar” comes off as the wrong word, so that is something they have to be aware of, too. It’s something you never think about before you find yourself on camera, but the camera shows it all—good and bad.
Rainbow Wāhine celebrate their 1979 championship win.
People want to come here because it is the best environment in college volleyball. Other coaches and players say it all the time. Especially for teams that won’t go to the post-season, this is like playing in the NCAA tournament—and usually our matches and tournaments are better organized, and more fun. The fans embrace the players like nowhere else and have practically from the start. “There is definitely not any college experience like it, anywhere else in the world. Nothing is even close,” Deitre Collins claims.
The 1983 champion team.
You’ve got to put your best players on the floor. You can’t recruit a player just because she’s local if she’s not at that level. I like to give the local girls a chance for sure, but the best players are going to play. There is no mix planned. We are lucky our local players can play at the highest level. In some sports that is not possible, but in volleyball it absolutely is.
Dave Shoji coaching in 1989.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t help to get worked up about things because the players don’t react well to a lot of yelling. They don’t react well to a coach going off on them. I’ve watched coaches who weren’t effective because they were yellers. I think I was a yeller. I was definitely a yeller back in the ’70s. I didn’t understand the value of talking to them, trying to get more out of them by being calm and more analytical rather than “Get your butt in gear” kind of talk. I don’t think that works with players. Riley (Wallace) used to tell me you’ve got to bust them and make them respect you, that’s the way they’ll respond. I just never thought that was right.
It’s different with the guys. I coached the UH men’s team from 1979 to 1985, and that was back in the days when I was a yeller. I remember constantly yelling at them. They were a different breed then—they rarely listened no matter how you said things.
If I had one pick to start a team, it would be Teee Williams, the best player we ever had. She could block middle, play left, and we had her do both. She was durable as heck; we set her tons of balls, and she never missed a game. In 1988, she had 40 kills and 45 digs against Cal Poly and just kept bombing balls. She actually scared people a little bit. Plus, she loved it here. “I smile every time I think of Hawai‘i,” Teee says. “No matter where I am in the world, if I look up and see a rainbow, that is the one thing I have from Hawai‘i. I still remember jumping up and hearing the crowd yell, ‘Teeeeee!’”
It is part of people’s lives here. No other universities seek us out to ask why we’re so successful. I think they know things are a little unusual here. They know they can’t create the same thing unless they establish winning all the time.
In 1983, Wāhine players Joyce Kaapuni, Sista Palakiko, Lee Ann Pestana, Missy Yomes were No. 1.
On the other hand, players today I don’t think are as tough as players were back then. Players in the ’70s could take more punishment, and there wasn’t as much parental interference. Nobody gave you anything then, you had to earn it. Kids nowadays are a little more spoiled, a little more enabled. There’s more drama with playing time. More players bail out of a tough situation now.
It’s just a sign of the times. Early in childhood, everybody gets a medal, everybody gets to play in AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization). You’re supposed to be encouraging with everybody and tell them to just have fun. When kids come to a tough situation, they’re not able to deal with it sometimes.
The coaching has changed along with it. You’ve got to be able to manage kids like that today. It’s still manageable, but it’s really hard now. You have to cater to boys and girls, and you have to be strong, but you still have to understand who you’re dealing with. I think players in the ’80s, when Title IX was still new ... anything they ever got was appreciated. If we treated them to a nice postgame meal, they were so happy. But now everybody expects that kind of treatment.
The game has changed dramatically simply because of money. Texas, Nebraska and Penn State are not the only ones with big budgets now—Alabama has a big budget, and there are many others. I wouldn’t say anybody in the Pac-12 is successful solely because they have a big budget, but if you have a big budget and a great campus and a great academic reputation, now you are getting into the things girls want. A good coach and really good academics are primary, and then the rest of it might come into play, like facilities and location.
Shoji celebrates with his Wāhine players on the occasion of his 1,000th win in 2009.
Every time I think about my life I have to thank the late Donnis Thompson. I don’t know where I would be today without her pushing Title IX and women’s volleyball. I can’t think of any other life. I’ve had this life for 40 years, and it’s just been a wonderful opportunity. Everything I have goes back to Donnis, and I have to give credit to her. She was the one who really had the vision. I had no vision at the time, I was trying to get by day to day. Who could have imagined the program being where it is today, except maybe her?
When I hit 50, I thought, well, maybe this could be a career, maybe this might have to be my career. The last time I had a job interview was with Donnis in 1980. I remember her admonishing me because I came in practice gear. I was in shorts because it was right before practice, and she thought I should have worn long pants and maybe a coat and tie. She scolded me, but in the back of my mind it was like, “How can she not hire me?” She did, and pretty much every day since has been a blessing.
I treasure the first national championship, and finally being hired full time in 1981. Rallying past USC to win the 1982 title was so special and so was the year after, when our team cemented its legacy. Our last final-four team, in 2009, highlighted a year when so many good things happened in my life. I still remember the excitement of beating Nebraska in Lincoln to go to the 2002 final four, and beating Pacific—finally—in a rocking Klum Gym to make our way to the 1987 championship.
Ending USC’s season twice at their new arena a few years ago also remains memorable, as does that 2000 regional win over Long Beach State, our longtime nemesis. I don’t think I had any idea of just how much the people of Hawai‘i embraced us until the opening of the Stan Sheriff Center in 1994. To see 10,000 fans is something most volleyball players will never experience, and probably most coaches. We’ve seen it a bunch of times, and it basically began with that shocking sellout at the Neal Blaisdell Center in 1976.
We played the game’s longest match, with Brigham Young in the 1998 WAC tournament final, and we are the home of the sport’s winningest coach and most loyal, kind, passionate, and compassionate fans. The feeling of celebrating wins number 1,000 and 1,107, which put me number one on the victory list, at home will stay with me always. The sheer joy of the players and genuine appreciation of the fans touched me deeply.
I will probably relish all the wins later in life, but right now the only win you want is the next one, so you are still in the moment of coaching. To me, our greatest achievement will always be that we have been competitive for 40 years. My only real regrets are every one of those painful losses.
If something else had come along in 1976, I probably would have taken it and left the University of Hawai‘i. I never imagined coaching Wāhine volleyball into my 50s, let alone 60s. Now, all I think about is the future. When I retire, I don’t want the new coach to be a Dave Shoji clone. The person who takes the job is going to have to stand on their own two feet and become their own person in the job. I would like somebody who has the program’s best interest in mind to take over. I want someone the community is going to feel comfortable with—I’d want all the people in Hawai‘i who have season tickets to say, “Hey, I’m going to renew my season tickets because they have a good team and so-and-so is the head coach.” We need someone who is going to capture the hearts of the people.
After that, it’s all about winning—you’ve got to continue winning.
Dave Shoji, in the Words of his Former Players
Years played, 1993—’96
“I will always have a picture of him in my head squatting down in the backcourt analyzing the game, seeing little things. He’d be there a long time, and all of a sudden he’d jump up and have something meaningful to say about the game that made such a difference. My training with him was a combination of so many things, mentally and physically. He was always working on my blocking. I had a problem getting my left hand over the net, and he even asked me, what’s “left” in Swedish. It’s vänster, so from then on he kept telling me, “Vänster, vänster hand.”
Years played, 1980—’83
“As a coach, it is sometimes very difficult to understand how every team can’t be like the one we had at Hawai‘i. Then I realize how special we were. Working hard was the norm, winning was expected, but earned. You just don’t find that everywhere. I am truly blessed that when I was trying to decide where I should attend school, God was showing me rainbows. To me this was my sign that Hawai‘i was where I was to go to school. I never visited—Dave was the only person I met before I came. There could not have been a better decision for me, or a better coach!”
Cobey Shoji Hutzler
Daughter, former director of volleyball operations at Stanford University
Besides having an amazing support system, I think Dad has remained successful because of the simplicity of his coaching and teaching and his ability to develop players’ talent. Everything he does is very simple and routine, and I think that a lot of his success comes in that simplicity. He hasn’t changed much in those 40 years, and the results speak for themselves. He is incredible at teaching the basic skills in volleyball and consequently develops talent and gets the most out of his players, better than any coach.”
Robyn Ah Mow-Santos
Years played, 1993—’96/UH assistant coach. 2011-present
“Dave puts up with attitudes a little more now than he did before. He lets it go to a point, but when it gets too much, he does put his foot down, and when it comes down, there is no coming back, I can tell you that!”
Years played, 1984—’87
“Dave really teaches. He is very good at strategy, but he also teaches the basics of volleyball and what you need to know. When it comes time to use that strategy, he has that instinct to know that we are ready. Substitutes are ready—he prepares you to do that. Not very many coaches think like that. Dave was my biggest influence as far as coaching at that level. I wouldn’t be where I am—coaching two national championship teams at Hawai‘i Pacific and running a volleyball club—if I hadn’t been a student of the game then. I think Dave was the same way in college. Why not emulate somebody who is awesome?”
Years played, 1975—’79
The UH women’s volleyball program, and all the sacrifices Dave has made to develop a successful program for women, have given all of us an opportunity to receive a college education while playing volleyball. How great is that? We are now in our communities contributing to society, especially in Hawai‘i. His legacy is giving back to the state of Hawai‘i and making women’s volleyball a prestigious and respectable sport.”
Q&A with Author Ann Miller
Q. What was it like to work this closely with someone you’d covered for so long?
A. It was way more than we ever wanted to see of each other off the golf course, but I did learn just how far I could push him, and when I needed to get (his wife) Mary to push him for me. She is a rock star!
Q. How has he changed over the years?
A. His family has mellowed him, and his faith. He trusts people more and his players trust him much more. And, after almost 40 years of being a national contender in a sport that’s hardly fair anymore, he realizes he doesn’t have to win the last game to be successful. He just looks at all those fans and kind, successful former players and counts his blessings.
Q. What do you see as key to his success?
A. I’ve only been scared in a sports setting twice—when I partnered with Dave Shoji and Michelle Wie on the golf course and we were losing our $1 bets, which tells you a little about how bad my golf game is. Their stone-cold competitiveness, and the frightening “We will not lose to these guys” look they each gave me, sent the same shiver down my spine, and made me $2 richer.
Q. Random fact that people don’t know about him that you think may surprise them?
A. Lots of coaches and athletes talk about learning more after a loss, but are at a loss to explain what they learned right after a game. Dave is much more introspective and articulate after a loss. He already gets it, and has started fixing it.
Q. Best part of doing the book?
A. It was touching to hear former players describe Dave in very different terms years later. What they came to appreciate most had little to do with wins, losses and arm-swings.
Q. Worst part?
A. I’ve never worked this hard over a five-month period in my life. It was not the retirement I had envisioned.
Where to Find It
Wāhine Volleyball: 40 Years Coaching Hawai‘i’s Team by Dave Shoji with Ann Miller, UH Press, was released this month.
About the book’s author
Ann Miller is an award-winning journalist who covered sports in Hawai‘i for 34 years, first at The Honolulu Advertiser and then the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Before that, she worked in the sports department at the Oakland Tribune—and waited on tables—to finance her degree in journalism and physical education at San Francisco State. The Association for Women in Sports Media created The Ann Miller Service Award in 2013 to honor members who have made a significant contribution to the organization. She still covers some golf for the Star-Advertiser, but officially retired this year to work on her own game, see much more of family and friends and learn what it feels like to watch a Wāhine volleyball match with a beer in her hand. This is her first book collaboration.