Talk Story: James Dingus

LIHUE — Last season, James Dingus was an assistant varsity girls basketball coach for Kauai High School and Neil Fagarang was the head coach.

Right after the last school year, Fagarang approached Dingus about taking over and now roles have reversed. Dingus has taken the helm of the program and Fagarang serves as assistant coach.

When he’s not on the hardwood, he’s an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School. At home, he has his wife Elizabeth, 5-year-old daughter Rebecca and 3-year-old son Benjamin.

Taking over the girls basketball program on top of his other obligations has been tough, but he’s met the challenge head on with the support of his family and the former head coach.

“We all tried to make sure it was a good fit for everybody,” Dingus said.

Dingus sat down with The Garden Island at the Kauai High School gym the day after getting his first win as head coach and discussed how he got started in the sport, becoming the head man of the girls varsity team and the challenges it has posed.

I remember after a game, you said you’ve been involved in basketball since middle school. Can you give us a breakdown of your history with the sport?

I grew up playing in community leagues, like lots of kids. Then when I was in, junior high is what they called it where I went, I had two P.E. and social studies teachers who were really influential role models. They played basketball with the students at lunch time. They were some of my first positive, powerful role models. One of them played in college, so he was pretty good. We just played every day at lunch in middle school.

Played in high school. That was my first paying job, as a camp counselor at the high school — Capistrano Valley High School. That was in Southern California. Played there for three years, then graduated at Huntington Beach High School. Then went to college. Ran track for a couple of years, but also competed in intramurals, at California State-Stanislaus.

Ran track there for a couple of years but got injured, but I was able to compete in intramurals. Then went back to Huntington Beach High School and started as a freshmen basketball coach, worked my way up to varsity assistant, and was varsity coach there for a year before I moved over here (in 2001).

What were your ties to Kauai High? Were you an assistant previously?

Yeah. I participate in a community men’s league in Kalaheo, in the neighborhood center. Through some contacts there, I did some substituting here. Got to know some of the teachers and the previous athletic director, Dino Pabre. He’s pretty good friends with me through that men’s league. He got me into the girls program here as an assistant JV coach.

So you were the JV coach starting when?

Two years ago, I was an assistant varsity coach and the JV coach. Last year, I was the JV coach.

So becoming head varsity coach, how did that come to be?

I’m not sure exactly all the reasons, but Coach Neil decided to step down. He still wanted to be involved with the program, but he wasn’t interested in being head coach anymore. Then the transition happened under AD Pabre, shuffling some of the staff around, so I became the head coach and Eric Lee became the JV coach. He was my assistant last year.

From being the JV head coach to varsity head coach, how was that transition?

It’s interesting. It’s a lot of the same faces, but now everybody listens to my answers a lot more. A lot more organization, a lot more paperwork. I’m the head coach, so everything falls on me. If things go well, the players get credit. And if things go wrong, it’s my fault.

So how many years have you been coaching since your days at Huntington Beach?

Oh boy. I think I had six years there. Island School had a boys program for a couple of years, and I was an assistant there. This was four or five years ago. They had one group of boys who were pretty athletic and they were good friends. It started out as an exhibition group and they worked their way up, but they didn’t really have the depth of a program to maintain it for long-term. It was just that one group of boys who were friends and they wanted to play.

And this is my third year here (at Kauai High).

How different is it from being an assistant to the head guy?

Every coach is a little bit different. Some head coaches use their assistants in different ways — just like CEOs of companies run their company in their unique style. My mentor at Huntington Beach, he groomed me to replace him. He kind of added a little bit to my responsibility each year as I was working for him. He really helped me and prepared me.

But once you’re the head coach, it’s your final say. It’s your vision for the team. It’s your knowledge of the game that you’re trying to pass on. That’s definitely different than being an assistant.

So last year, Coach Neil was the head coach and you’re the assistant. This year, that’s reversed. Was that a little odd at first?

He’s made it really smooth. He’s done an outstanding job being my assistant — backing me up whenever there’s something new and asking me questions about how I want it to be done. He’s really made it a smooth transition, but yeah, it’s a little strange. Last year, I was asking him. Now, he’s asking me. That’s definitely been a transition over the summer and over the first few practices.

How about the girls? I know some of them returned from last year. How have they dealt with the change?

I think they’ve been doing pretty well with it. I guess I can’t really speak for them. You’d have to ask them if it’s been a smooth transition.

I did coach a lot of these girls at the JV level two years ago. Not all of them, but most of them. So they were used to me as a head coach, at that level at least. So they got used to my voice and hearing me bark. Yeah, kind of an odd situation I guess. Not too many programs work out the way this one has this year.

What was your approach going into this season? Going through the first initial practices, the preseason and then the KIF season just started.

There’s a lot of returning varsity players. Last year’s varsity group was pretty young — only one or two seniors that contributed huge minutes. So there’s a lot of girls coming back experienced, and you want to take advantage of that, use what they have and build on that. That’s really all I was trying to do, and trying to give them an idea of how we want to play.

Hopefully in the preseason and those early practices, we instilled that. I think in (last week’s win against Waimea), you started to see how we want to play. We’re just trying to keep building and keep improving on that.

You said you moved here in 2001. What brought you to Kauai?

In Southern California, I think I just got stuck in one too many traffic jams. Like a lot of people, you come over on vacation and you don’t want to leave. For me, I just bought that one-way ticket.

Grew up around the coast, so the ocean was a big draw.

So what are your goals this year, with this team?

Well, we’re trying to make sure they play as a team. Every coach would probably say that. Different players contribute to the team in different ways, but (I want to be sure that) everybody is part of the team and contributing somehow. For some players, that’s scoring. For other players, that’s playing hard-nosed defense. For some players, that’s rebounding. For other players, that’s ball handling and passing. Everybody contributing to the greater good.

We have three core ideas that we come back to again and again: Enthusiasm, being together and growth. … I come back to those words a lot.

So you’ve played both teams, Kapaa and Waimea, once now. What are your first impressions after those first two games?

I think everybody’s different. Everybody has a chance to win. It’s going to be fun to go down and see how the teams grow and how they change as we go through the next three or four weeks. It’s crazy to think it’s only been a week and we’re already 25 percent into the season. It’s funny. The girls put in so much time in practice, and there’s only eight games. It goes fast. You got to take advantage of every chance you have.

How would you describe yourself as a coach? Are you intense or are you more laid-back?

I guess I would have to say I’m a bit of an old-school coach. I do want the girls to work hard while they’re in practice. But I want it to be fun because I don’t think really old-school techniques, they don’t work anymore.

Some of the thing my coaches would have said or did, you’d just get fired nowadays. So, I want the girls to work hard while they’re in practice, but I want to have fun with them as well. I don’t think there’s any reason hard work and fun are exclusive.

So you’ve been here at Kauai High, this is the third year now. How long do you see yourself doing this?

Don’t really have a timetable. That might be a better question to ask my wife. But she’s been really supportive. My kids enjoy coming to the gym. The girls are great with my two kids. I got a 3-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. The girls give them high fives. It’s a really positive atmosphere.

And part of the reason I did this is because I have a daughter. I want her to see that girls can be strong and athletic. There’s no reason not to be that way. If that’s what she wants to do, then she should go for it. Just like these girls.

I’ve spoken with other coaches about how they handle coaching during the season, on top of jobs and their family obligations. I can imagine it’s a lot. How are you dealing with it?

It’s tricky. It’s definitely a juggle, and you try to balance it. You want to keep everything in perspective. But December and January are tricky, for sure. My wife looks forward to spring. Organization, paperwork, practice times, games, it does take a lot of time for coaches. But we love the game. That’s why we coach.

So then in all your years coaching, what has been most rewarding?

Being around kids is fun. They’re so energetic. When you work on something and they start to get it, whatever it is, when it gels and the players start to get it and they start to help each other, as a coach you can take a step back a little bit. When they’ve got it, that’s rewarding for me. That’s really special.

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