Former Washington State associate head coach Jeff Hironaka enjoying the twilight of his career at Genesis Prep
Thu., Dec. 10, 2020
WSU men's basketball assistant coach Jeff Hironaka points out directions to his players during an undated game. (Courtesy of Seattle Pacific Athletics)
Someone has to drive Genesis Prep’s team van, wash the tiny Post Falls private school’s jerseys and make sure the 1A Division II program is adequately hydrated.
Why not a former Washington State and Portland State assistant with a pair of NCAA Division II head coaching gigs on his resume?
This is the reality of 63-year-old Jeff Hironaka, who is spending the twilight of his long career in a modest, do-everything setting.
He’s grateful for the opportunity.
“I could have stopped and took an early retirement, but I wasn’t ready to be sent out to the pasture yet,” said Hirokonka, who lost his job at Colorado Christian University in March after three straight losing seasons.
“At 63, my chances of getting another college job weren’t great, but I love coaching, working with kids. It’s the teaching part I am getting used to.”
A decade after giving direction to future NBA star Klay Thompson on a Washington State team that reached the NIT Final Four, Hironaka applied for a middle school math teaching position at Genesis Prep, a school on the campus of megachurch Real Life Ministries.
Marsell Colbert, who helped build Genesis Prep into an Idaho small-school power with back-to-back state titles in 2017 and 2018, didn’t return this season, creating a coaching vacancy.
Hironaka accepted both positions, a move that mirrored the infancy of his career 40 years ago when was given the keys to little Ririe High School’s hoops program in Southern Idaho.
This is one of Hironaka’s biggest challenges.
Graduation and offseason transfers gutted Genesis Prep (1-2), which doesn’t have the firepower it’s had in recent years, Hironaka said, after returning only two starters in Nathan Weeks and Eli Gonzales and little depth.
“It’s a drastic change,” Hironaka said of the switch from college basketball to Idaho’s smallest high school classification. “We don’t have the talent or are as developed in basketball skills as some of the teams we’ve played. St. Maries killed us (60-22).”
If he can’t get developed talent, he wants to cultivate the same hard work and analytical approach he did in previous stops.
Weeks is already impressed with Hironaka.
“It’s really good having him as a coach. At first I was skeptical, because there was a coaching change in my senior year,” Weeks said. “It’s a very different style. Last year we had more talent, so now we have to play a lot smarter.”
A third-generation Japanese-American, Hironaka grew up on a farm in Weiser, Idaho, played at Eastern Oregon and eventually coached at 2A Ririe, 3A Weiser and 4A Blackfoot before getting his foot in the door as an assistant at Idaho State in 1987.
He later spent 11 years as an assistant at NCAA Division II Seattle Pacific and was given the head coaching job in 2002, where winning followed.
Hironaka posted a 134-67 record in seven seasons at SPU that included five NCAA Division II Tournament appearances and two Great Northwest Athletic Conference Coach of the Year honors.
In 2006, he helped the Falcons reach the NCAA Division II Final Four.
Three years later, Hironaka leveraged that success to get hired by his former SPU boss, Ken Bone, as an associate head coach at Washington State.
“I was there to game plan and scout, be (Bone’s) sounding board,” said Hironaka, who was also a finalist for the Eastern Washington head coaching position in 2007. “In hindsight, I probably should have stayed at SPU, because that was a great situation. But at the time, the opportunity to coach at WSU was hard to pass up.”
After three years on WSU’s staff, the Cougars had taken a noticeable decline and Bone opted to demote Hironaka to an off-the-bench player development role.
A year later, Hironaka became the associate head coach at Portland State. Bone was fired from WSU in 2014.
“The recruiting wasn’t going as well,” Hironaka said. “And, I get it I was the oldest person (on the WSU staff), so they made the move. I obviously wasn’t happy about it, but these things happen.”
Hironaka and Bone, now an associate head coach at Pepperdine, are still close friends.
Bone believes Hironaka is a fantastic hire for Genesis Prep.
“What he’ll provide for that program is his passion for basketball and people,” Bone said. “He’ll get the best out of those kids and will have relationships with those kids for years to come.
“(Genesis Prep) is very blessed to have him and he’s happy to be there. His character and trustworthiness are off the charts, but what also provides peace of mind in knowing he is taking care of business.”
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