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A New Start: The Rise of Wyatt Tau and Sabers Basketball

By: Annaliese Gumboc

Wyatt Tau never intended to become a coach. After he finished high school at James Campbell in 1990, he didn’t have many plans at all. “I never think that far,” Tau said. “I was thinking about tomorrow.” 

Born in 1972, Tau was adopted by his grandparents and raised in Ewa Beach, back when it was just a small village on the westside of O’ahu. The town’s only connection to the rest of the island was a lonely two-lane road: “one lane going in, one lane going out,” Tau said. People rarely left—no one in Ewa had a car. 

Isolated as they were, the village was tight-knit. Community was everything. “That’s all we had in Ewa Beach,” Tau said. “We lean on each other in this community.”

Tau loved his childhood. “Growing up in the village, in Ewa Beach, with all these apartment houses around, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said. Some of his fondest memories are of the community park, where he’d go to hang out with the neighborhood kids. “Kickball, baseball, basketball, football, we would do everything at the park,” Tau recalled.

Living in Ewa had its drawbacks due to the limited resources available. Once he graduated from high school, Tau faced a scarcity of career and education options. He felt lost, unsure of his life’s direction.

Everything changed in 1996, when a close friend asked Tau to help coach at the Boys & Girls Club. “At that point, I wasn’t really doing anything useful,” said Tau. “And he kind of saved my life by asking me to help out, working with kids.”

For 24-year-old Tau, coaching had never looked appealing. “I seen him coaching with the kids already,” he said, referring to his friend. “Just didn’t think that it was for me.” But working at the Boys & Girls Club, Tau found himself at ease—and more importantly, he’d found a purpose.

Two years later, Tau’s first son was born, and coaching took on an even greater meaning. “I used to live like, I don’t worry about nobody but myself,” Tau said. “And then having my son, that changed everything.”

Becoming a parent affected the way Tau coached. “Because I love my kids so much, I think that’s why, when I coach, I give them the same love. I give these kids the same compassion,” said Tau. “Because I love these kids just like I love my own kids.”

Tau was still working at the Boys & Girls Club in 2004, when Amosa Amosa—Aiea’s varsity basketball and football head coach—asked Tau to join the school. By then, Tau was also assisting at Campbell, but his role with the team was minor. He loved his hometown school, but with a real opportunity in his hands, he left Campbell and the Club to become Aiea’s JV basketball coach. 

At Aiea, Tau’s success was meteoric. After winning the JV basketball championships in his second year with the team, Tau was offered the varsity head coach position. Coach Amosa wanted to resign in favor of Tau. 

“I was kind of scared and nervous because I’d never been asked to be a head coach,” said Tau. But if Tau was nervous, it didn’t show. 

During his debut year as the varsity head coach, Tau transformed Aiea’s struggling basketball team into State semifinalists. By the second year, they advanced to the State finals.

It was obvious that Tau was special. His players loved him and his methods produced winning results. It wasn’t long before other schools took notice. 

When Campbell first offered Tau a head coach position, Tau turned it down. He was loyal to Aiea, the school that had given him so many opportunities and embraced him with open arms. He didn’t want to leave his players or the community. Additionally, Campbell had witnessed a series of coaching changes, and Tau was hesitant to become the next in line.

Tau remained at Aiea for his third year as the varsity basketball coach, but Campbell continued to pursue him. Others encouraged him to make the switch, including Aiea’s own athletic director. 

“I said, ‘no matter how much I love that school, you guys gave me so much opportunities here that I’m loyal to you guys,’” Tau recounts telling Aiea’s AD. “But he gave me his blessing. And he told me, ‘You know coach, just—just go. I mean, if you want to go, just chance ’em.’” 

Tau took that leap of faith in 2009, joining Campbell as their new boys varsity basketball head coach. He returned to his alma mater as a remarkably different person from the student he had been 20 years prior. Then, he had been a lost kid without any direction in life. Now, at 37 years old, he was a successful head coach looking to invigorate Campbell’s basketball program. 

The homecoming felt “unbelievable,” Tau said. “When I think about all my high school career and then even after high school, I didn’t think of myself as a coach, period. Like I didn’t expect to be a coach. And just getting here and then seeing myself at where I’m at now. It’s like, ‘Wow.’”

Though Tau was sad to leave Aiea, he didn’t regret making the change. “I love my school and I love my community,” he said. “So the transition was so easy.”

Given the high school’s history of firing coaches, Tau honestly hadn’t expected to last long at Campbell. Despite that, he’s managed to last through 14 years and two athletic directors, all the while maintaining involvement in three different sports. 

It hasn’t always been easy. From 2015 to 2020, Tau’s basketball team failed to move past the first round of the OIA DI playoffs and was briefly demoted to DII in 2016 after finishing last in the OIA West. Tau, who was also assisting with the football team and had begun coaching track and field, frequently felt tired and stretched thin. And while Tau treated his players like family, his role as a coach strained his relationship with his two sons, who were held to high athletic expectations by Tau and others. 

Year after year, the Sabers struggled in the playoffs, but Campbell’s administration continued to believe in Tau. He just had a way with the kids and a passion for the Ewa community that made him indispensable, even if his basketball results had been lacking in recent years. Winning results were never Tau’s priority to begin with. While winning is certainly a goal for Tau, he believes it’s more important for his players to have fun, do well in school, and stay on the right path. He has always been successful at that. 

Tau’s basketball team finally broke their postseason skid in 2022, when they advanced to the quarterfinals of the OIA playoffs only to lose 48-33 to Mililani. 

After the loss, Tau and his coaches went back to the drawing board, and Tau retreated for a week to do some soul-searching. He returned with a new plan, sending out a text to all his returnees and up-and-coming players, telling them ‘This is what we need to do.’

“We took our lickins from then on, went to so much tournaments,” Tau said. Throughout the 2022-2023 season, the team built a strong camaraderie, founded upon the attitudes of “‘we believe in you’ and ‘it doesn’t matter who takes the winning shot or who takes the last shot,’” Tau said. “Nobody was complaining about that. Everybody was just happy to be a part of what we’re doing, our journey.”

Astoundingly, the previously-struggling Sabers dominated their division, making it all the way to the OIA finals, where they once again found themselves facing Mililani. The stakes were sky-high: if they won, it would be Campbell’s first OIA title in boys varsity basketball; if they lost, they would squander their best shot at a championship in over a decade. Beyond that, Tau was aware that the game would be broadcast on television and watched by people from across the islands. This was a chance for his boys to represent Campbell and Ewa Beach, to show that they were better than any negative stereotypes that had persisted against their community. 

The game against Mililani didn’t go as planned for Campbell, who were down 26-20 entering halftime. The majority of Tau’s players had never competed in a D1 varsity title and their nerves were evident. “It had nothing to do with Mililani, when they went up,” Tau stated. “It had to do with us forgetting what we had to do to get here.”

Still, even when down, the Sabers’ bond was their anchor. “That team camaraderie that we built, that bond we built…was unbelievable,” Tau said. “And I seen it throughout the whole season, we bent, but we didn’t falter. We bent. But the kids understood what we had to do.”

The Sabers gradually closed the point gap after halftime, exiting the third quarter down only 35-32 and tying the game at 42-42 by the end of the fourth. In a tense overtime period, Mililani managed to score three points—Campbell scored eight, sealing their first OIA title victory.  

Tau felt “so appreciated” after winning the OIA, as if all the love he had put into the community was being returned. The morning after, he woke up to thousands of texts congratulating him and his boys for the historic win. “It was just…it was the best feeling to know that there’s so much people out there appreciate, still watching, still paying attention,” he said. “We might be a small community, but we big at heart.”

In the HHSAA state championship tournament, the Sabers kept their streak going, defeating Kahuku 43-40, then Maryknoll 46-40. St. Louis was the only school standing between them and their first state championship. 

The state title game went down to the wire, with both teams fighting ferociously for the win. When the final buzzer sounded, the Crusaders had put 41 points on the board; the Sabers had 39, only a field goal short of the tie. 

Photo: Lori McKeown

Even after all his players had left, Tau stayed behind in the locker room, crying. He is still emotional when speaking about the loss. “It was so close for these kids,” he said, choking up.

Despite the crushing defeat, Tau is immensely proud of the way his players and other Campbell athletes have conducted themselves in these high-profile games. “I don’t think any coach could ask for anything more than that. For me, it overcame the loss, although it was a tough one,” he said.“We do have a bad name on Campbell High School. And now all the other sports playing so well too, and us being on TV again and playing so well with the greatest attitude, to me, that’s bigger than the game. I was so happy that that’s what people are seeing.” 

Though the loss to Saint Louis was heartbreaking, it isn’t the end for Campbell. Tau hopes it’s “the beginning of a new start”—an opportunity to build a winning culture at Campbell. “Where do we go?” He wondered. “Do we want to be here every year? What do we got to do to get here? So, same thing we did last year. I’m doing it again, already.”

Photos: Lori McKeown

But even if the Sabers aren’t as successful as last year, Tau is happy just coaching his kids. He loves his job, loves forming bonds with his players, and views the wins and accolades as added bonuses. “I got it made when I came to Campbell,” he said. “I just get a lot of good, good kids. Grateful kids, appreciative kids…You know, it just puts the icing on the cake, when you get these kinds of results. But my kids are good either way.”

Both Tau and his community have changed a lot since he graduated in 1990. Ewa is no longer an isolated village, and many of its old residents have found themselves displaced by rising prices and wealthy newcomers. Staying is becoming more difficult and costly, but Tau doesn’t want to leave. 

Tau himself isn’t quite sure how he got here, but he’s grateful for the journey, both its highs and lows. “I don’t know, life brought me to where I’m at now,” he said, reflecting on his past. “I just went along with my life…. And I know it’s not the best job that I wanted, working here at the school. It’s a job. It’s an opportunity that I love, so nobody can take that away.”