Following Brigham Young University-Hawaii's final men's and women's basketball games Feb. 20, coaches, players, cheerleaders, students and members of the community put arms around shoulders and swayed together while singing a tender version of "Aloha 'Oe," a song traditionally sung whenever an honored guest or friend leaves the Hawaiian Islands.
In this case, the crowd at the Cannon Activities Center was bidding a fond farewell to the school's intercollegiate athletics program, which BYU-Hawaii announced in April 2014 it would drop to increase international student enrollment.
"It was very moving," said Brad Jones, BYU-Hawaii's athletic director for the past year. "The reality is setting in. It's hard to see. It's hitting a lot of people squarely in the jaw, but we understand these things happen and will move forward."
While BYU-Hawaii spring sports tennis, golf and softball will compete until June, Jones and Dave Porter, one of BYU-Hawaii's winningest coaches, recently spoke with the Deseret News by telephone about the school's decision to drop athletics, the program's storied history and its lasting impact on student athletes.
Jones is one of several employees and coaches — "the majority" of the athletic department — who will seek new employment this spring. A few coaches who also have academic positions will remain, Jones said.
Many student athletes want to transfer to a new university, preferably one that honors the standards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as no Sunday play, but it's been difficult, Jones said.
They have known this was coming since the university announced it would transition out of intercollegiate athletics after the 2016-2017 season.
BYU-Hawaii's priority is to increase student enrollment from 2,700 to 3,200 and give more opportunities to students along the Pacific Rim, according to the April 2014 statement. The school also needs to upgrade some campus facilities. After more than 10 years of research and considering options, the decision was made to drop intercollegiate athletics. The administration acknowledged the "dedication and excellence of coaches, staff and student athletes" over many years of Seasider athletics, the statement reads.
"The efforts of all who have contributed to the tradition of the athletics program are greatly appreciated," the statement reads. "The board, executive committee and university administration feel that the top priority is to serve more students, especially those from the Pacific and Asia."
In October 2015, BYU-Hawaii President John S. Tanner released a page-long statement about the decision. He expressed his love of Seasider athletics but said he was forced to consider expenses and travel costs against an opportunity to admit 500 students. The BYU-Hawaii president also promised a "vibrant intramural/activity program."
"After several years of study and weighing pros and cons, it was decided to discontinue NCAA athletics and use the savings to help admit 500 more students. The argument for such a trade-off seems pretty compelling, especially since we intend to draw these 500 students from our target area in Asia and the Pacific, where the need for educated leaders for communities and the LDS Church is greatest," President Tanner wrote. "Admitting 20 percent more students will ultimately result in many conversions, temple marriages, missionaries and leaders in developing areas of the church. These advantages to the church for the many must be weighed against the positive impact of the athletic program for the few."
President Tanner reiterated that decision in a 2016 interview with the Deseret News
"We feel that has been our assigned mission by the brethren to focus on this part of the world," President Tanner said. "I've called it 'pivoting to the Pacific Rim.'"
Jones is grateful for his brief experience at BYU-Hawaii and hopes more people see the change as a positive one.
"We're heartbroken, but it's important for us to do things in an upbeat and classy manner," Jones said.
Porter, chairman of the school's exercise and sport science department and the men's and women's tennis coach, is one of the few who are staying after sports phase out. He's "obviously disappointed," and compared his reaction to standing on a street corner and witnessing an accident while someone else sees the same accident from the second floor of an apartment building.
"From my perspective, I don't understand the reason and I don't see the value of how it will positively impact students, but that's a perspective I'm seeing from the side of the road and somebody that's looking down from the second story window might be seeing it from a different viewpoint," Porter said. "I certainly don't want to judge whether it's the right thing to do or not, but it's certainly difficult from where I'm standing."
BYU-Hawaii's intercollegiate athletics program roots were planted in 1967 when the men's rugby team traveled to the mainland for a series of matches in California. Apparently they won because a rugby publication declared the squad from Laie, Hawaii, to be national champions.
The rugby team's success sparked a push toward a full schedule and the addition of other sports teams, beginning in 1970 with men's volleyball. Men's basketball and women's volleyball started in 1978-79 and are the school's longest running sports, said Spencer Shamo, BYU-Hawaii assistant athletic director.
That first rugby championship team is one of 24 national championship teams at BYU-Hawaii. The school also claims two individual women's cross country championships, 20 national players of the year and more than 100 all-Americans, with possibly more titles and accolades to be added as the spring sports end in June.
Porter started at BYU-Hawaii in 1982 as an assistant basketball coach. He later became the men's and women's tennis coach and has compiled more than 1,370 victories, including one stretch over seven years when the tennis team had a win-loss record of 233-1 (the only loss came in a national title match). Porter has a higher winning percentage (.884) than any coach in any NCAA division.
Other highlights include an appearance by the men's basketball team in the NAIA final four in 1992 and finishing as the national runner-up in 2011.
Jones praised coaches current and past, including Porter and former men's basketball coach Ken Wagner, who was at the school for 27 years, along with the countless student athletes who competed and left a victorious legacy.
"All those who have come before have done a tremendous job," Jones said. "BYU-Hawaii has been one of the most successful college programs in the nation, by far. With the caliber of excellence and accomplishment, it's incredible what they've been able to do out here. We enjoyed their success, tried to build on it and now close the doors graciously."
What made the BYU-Hawaii athletics special involved a supportive, tight-knit community and it was about the life lessons learned along the way, not just the winning, Porter said.
"The sport they played was a vehicle to learn the lessons; that's what I hope they remember," Porter said.
Taiwan native Michelle Chen was recruited to BYU-Hawaii as a volleyball player. During that time, she also joined the LDS Church and married in the Laie Hawaii Temple. In recent years, she has held a secretarial position in the athletic department.
Chen is one of many Seasider student athletes over the years whose lives were changed when they converted to the LDS faith at BYU-Hawaii.
"There are a lot of stories like that," Jones said.
Brazilian Lucas Alves came to Laie to play basketball. When sidelined with a serious knee injury, he began listening to Mormon missionaries and was later baptized. He shared his story in a book titled "Prophetic Destiny: The First 60 Years," by Alf Pratte and Eric B. Shumway.
"Through basketball, I was able to receive an education (and) become a member of the church," Alves wrote. "My experience at BYU-Hawaii was the start of my eternal progression back to my Heavenly Father."
"Dozens and dozens" of Porter's tennis players joined the church over the years. He told of one female student athlete from China who embraced the gospel and went on to be named the national player of the year, among other honors. She will soon graduate from medical school.
"She has an amazing, enriched and wonderful life. It would not have happened had she not come here," Porter said. "(The missionary tool) is certainly a tremendous byproduct of having an intercollegiate athletic program in this type of environment."
This is the second time an LDS Church-owned university has dropped intercollegiate athletics. In June 2000, Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho, announced it would phase out intercollegiate sports and replace it with an intramural program.
In the October 2015 statement, President Tanner promised the new intramural program will "move the pendulum from spectatorship to participation, a healthy correction for colleges as well for contemporary society as a whole."
"We envision a program that involves the entire campus in a wide-range of games and sports, including international sports not sponsored by the NCAA. This program will have four goals: fun, fitness, fellowship and fairness," President Tanner wrote. "I hope that this program will generate as much or even more excitement on campus than does NCAA athletics; that it will engage even more students, and as participants rather than as mere spectators; that it will be distinctive among American intramural programs for its international flavor; and that it will still be much less expensive than an NCAA athletic program."
The statement concluded, "In short, the decision on athletics is intended to result in greater fitness, more social involvement, more leadership opportunities, greater character development and more students who can benefit from a BYU-Hawaii education."