Can Ben Jay Save UH Sports?

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We walk into the Stan Sheriff Center, the 10,000-seat arena where basketball and volleyball games are played. As athletics director, Jay has a reserved row of court-side seats. They’re great for watching games, but not so good for entertaining donors and recruits, a vital part of an AD’s job. A sports arena really needs VIP suites for that. “Say this kid comes in that we’re trying to recruit, and she’s a big biomedical person and I want to match her up with the dean to get her to talk about the program—there’s no place to do that,” he says. “The fact is, if we lost a few seats for suites, I wouldn’t mind.”

Jay spends a lot of time at social events, schmoozing with the rich and powerful and trying to figure out where the money’s at. Hawaii has more millionaires per capita than any other state, he points out, but no tradition of major gift giving to college athletics. Most donations are transactional—here’s $10,000, and we’d like reserved seats and VIP parking, please. “We have a lot of high-end, big-dollar folks who support us, but we have a lack of big-dollar donations supporting the program,” he says. “When I take a look at the list of lifetime donors to athletics, I can count them on less than one hand.”

We enter the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex and stand by the pool, where the women’s swim team is warming up on kickboards. “When I first walked in here, I thought, for a pool facility, not bad. It ranks up there with a lot of the California schools,” Jay says. “But then I started noticing things like the broken clock.” He points to a weathered digital lap timer mounted to the wall, dead as scrap metal. “We’re relying on broken equipment! It makes you crazy.”

Two Rainbow Wahine coaches, Serela Kay and Jennifer Buffin, come over and greet Jay warmly. I ask what they thought about Jay’s infamous Twitter rant, and they both laugh approvingly. “We were like, ‘Yes! Ben Jay’s our MAN!” says Kay, associate water polo coach.

Kay and Buffin have their own long list of absurdist horror stories concerning facilities, including the one about the aquatic center’s recently renovated women’s locker room, which features standing water on floors that don’t properly drain, decorative tiling that is slippery when wet, and showers with hair traps that cannot be removed to clean out trapped hair.

Buffin notes that, before Ben Jay’s arrival, nobody had made such a big deal over the state of UH’s facilities since June Jones, the winningest football coach in the university’s history. Jones resigned in 2007, frustrated with the system. “I know there were other reasons why he left,” Buffin says. “But that was one of them—facilities. He knew things would never change.”

Back in his office, Jay and I watch the football team gathering for practice outside his window.

“You take a look at all the pre-season magazines, everybody’s rated us at the bottom of the Mountain West,” he says. “But these guys firmly believe they can compete with anyone, and I love that attitude.”

When Jay talks about UH’s infrastructure and bureaucracy, he’s often frowning, shaking his head, cursing, or laughing the wait-until-you-hear-this-one laugh of the cynical and the damned. But when he talks about things like the pluckiness of his underdog football team, or how he watched the men’s volleyball team beat UCLA, or how the sailing team took him for a sail, his frown lines soften, his posture straightens and the pure heart of a bona fide sports nut shines through.

It’s when he seems the most optimistic, and it’s when you realize why he got into this business in the first place. And it makes you want him to succeed more than ever.

“You know what?” he says, after venting about how the tennis team hasn’t been able to practice at night for three or four years because the lights at the tennis courts don’t work. “This is what I signed up for. Taking on challenges is what I love to do. It really is.”