Story by Hope McPherson

Photo by Thomas Hurst

SPU Selects Longtime Assistant Jeff Hironaka as Head Men's Basketball Coach

The day Hironaka became the new head men's basketball coach, SPU President Philip Eaton walked across campus to congratulate him personally. The congratulations continued later that day with a reception in his honor at Brougham Pavilion.

In a transition as smooth as a freshly varnished basketball court, Seattle Pacific University named Jeff Hironaka the new head coach of the men's basketball team on April 30.

Since 1996, Hironaka has been the top assistant to Ken Bone, who left SPU in mid-April to join the University of Washington basketball staff. When players, parents and others learned of Hironaka's promotion to commander-in-chief for men's hoops, reaction was swift and enthusiastic. "I'm just delighted," says junior Falcon forward Yusef Aziz. "After Coach Bone resigned, everyone wanted Hiro. We all knew who we wanted to be head coach."

Forward Gene Woodard, also a junior, agrees. "He's like a basketball genius. Basketball is his life, and the players are like his sons. I can't think of anybody who knows more about the game than he does."

Hironaka has played a key role in the Falcons' rise to national renown. On Bone's staff, he directed the team's defensive tactics, helping them amass 236 wins in 323 games, win or share five conference championships, and earn NCAA Division II tourney berths in eight of the last nine years. "In the past 10 days it became apparent that SPU could not find a more knowledgeable or dedicated person to take the reins of our program," said Tom Box, SPU athletic director, the day the new coach was named. "Jeff's the type of person who gives everything he has to his work."

A trim man less than 6 feet tall, Hironaka jokes that Japanese athletes are known more for ping pong than for basketball. He is, in fact, believed to be only the second Japanese American currently holding the top coaching spot at a four-year institution in the United States. Hironaka has been proving the stereotypes wrong for more than two decades. He was an accomplished player at Eastern Oregon, lettering for three seasons as he earned a degree in secondary education. Once retired as a player, he began coaching in the prep ranks, first at his Weiser, Idaho, high school alma mater. In 1986, he became head coach of Idaho's Ririe High School, moving to Blackfoot High School the following year.

By the time he joined Bone at SPU, Hironaka had already spent three years at the Division I level. He'd served on staff at Idaho State from 1987 to 1990, also earning a master's degree in sports administration while there. He was later an assistant coach and assistant athletic director at The Master's College in Newhall, California.

In 1991, Hironaka came to SPU; five years later, he was Bone's top assistant, coordinating defensive strategies, recruiting and travel. When Bone moved across the canal to the UW, Hironaka was asked to consider another move: to SPU's head men's basketball coach.

"The last two weeks seemed like a month," he said about the top-spot selection process. "After 22 years, 15 as an assistant, you're never sure when, or if, your time will come." But when the Falcons needed a new leader, they knew Hironaka's time had come.

SPU recognized a quality leader was already on the sidelines and wanted to give him a shot, says Box. Still, after Bone resigned, nearly two dozen unsolicited applications from Division I and II coaches dropped into Box's inbox. At the same time, more than 40 recommendations poured in for Hironaka. Box received calls, e-mails and letters from former players, SPU faculty, parents and coaches across the country — including University of Washington coaching legend Marv Harshman. Each praised Hiro-naka and urged SPU to promote him.

But those recommendations carried minimal weight in the selection process, according to Box. "We put Jeff through a rigorous two days of interviews," he relates, adding they suspected Hironaka would impress the evaluators. He proved them right. "There was no doubt in my mind that Jeff was ready," says Box.

When Hironaka's promotion was announced publicly, Seattle Pacific University's 10th men's basketball coach fought back tears at the podium. "I want to thank the University for giving me this opportunity," he said. "It's been a long haul, and I will try not to disappoint you. I am a fierce competitor, and I will not accept anything but the best."

Box has this to say about Hironaka's potential impact on competitors: "Jeff is like a stealth plane. He's loaded and armed — but not on anyone's radar yet."

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