Editor’s note: Former Wahine Assistant Coach Charlie Wade has been named the new men’s volleyball coach. Read the news release.
After 17 years leading a University of Hawaiʻi men’s volleyball program that he took from regional renown to national powerhouse, coach Mike Wilton has a cache of precious memories to sift through.
There were his first two seasons in a nearly empty Klum Gym, wondering how he would sell seats when Stan Sheriff Center opened in 1995. There were the rock star years with celebrities Yuval Katz, Erik Pichel and company. There were great teams featuring the remarkable and ultimately controversial Costas Theocharidis.
And there were the last three seasons, Wilton’s only back-to-back-to-back losing years, which still had their moments amidst the defeats. Despite a disappointing close to nearly two decades of lofty standards and expectations, BYU-Hawaiʻi alumnus Wilton has no regrets about leaving the program in 2009.
“When your life is over, how many wins you have, how many losses you have, that doesn’t matter,” mused Wilton during an interview in his office just three days after his final UH match. “What’s going to matter is, did you do the best you could as a person? We did our best.”
Wilton led the Warriors to a 307-149 record with four Mountain Pacific Sports Federation titles, three trips to the Final Four and one (vacated) national championship.
“I had a really good time,” he says. “It was a fabulous ride.”
Success, disappointment and perspective
The 65-year-old former Marine combined a disciplinarian approach to the game with an eye for recruiting the international scene as hard as his own backyard. First came Israeli Katz, who arrived on campus in 1995 and developed into a player Wilton calls the best hitter he coached at UH.
Katz, setter Pichel (who Wilton calls the best setter he had at UH) and coach’s son Aaron Wilton became superstars in the Stan Sheriff Center. They played to standing-room-only crowds in the 10,300-seat arena. After matches, there were so many adoring fans and autograph seekers that the players hid in laundry baskets to exit the building.
From his tiny office in a building adjacent to the Stan Sheriff Center, Wilton would watch in amazement as thousands of fans lined up outside the arena’s ticket counter for first-come, first-served tickets. Even now his voice cracks with incredulity when he speaks about the craziness that was UH Warrior volleyball 1995-97.
“I don’t know how you appreciate it,” he says. “You just get through it. It’s not pleasant. It even got to be too much for the boys. It’s a challenge. And we had no idea it was going to happen.”
Still, he smiles often when reminiscing about that era, and his voice is pregnant with pride when he talks about coaching his son. Aaron Wilton joined UH as a redshirt freshman and tried to quit three times, but the coach wouldn’t have it. Wilton himself initially worried about the perception of playing his own son, but watched him grow into an All-American.
The program escalated again in 2001-03, spurred by Theocharidis, who Wilton considers the second-best hitter in his UH tenure. The run was bittersweet.
Two NCAA plaques—one for making the 1995 national semifinals and the other for the 1996 championship game—adorn Wilton’s office. Conspicuously absent is the 2002 national championship trophy Hawaiʻi earned by besting Pepperdine for the title. The NCAA ruled that Theocharidis—who had played on a club team in Greece that paid some of its players—was ineligible, forcing the Warriors to vacate the championship and return the trophy.
“That was a great accomplishment, and that can’t be taken away,” Wilton says of the 2002 title. “It’s just sad that the rule is what it is. We did our best. We didn’t cheat. We thought we followed the rules. There are no regrets. And I love Costas Theocharidis. He is a great and wonderful guy.”
No nonsense, but a lot of heart
Wilton, who wakes up at 3:15 a.m. weekdays and works out six days a week, is a strict disciplinarian who expected the same no-nonsense work ethic of his players. His goal was to transform teenagers into men and teach accountability and responsibility.
Yet despite the self-admitted “gruff” game face Wilton wore during UH matches, he has a softer side.
It is hard to break into his inner circle, says Tino Reyes, considered Wilton’s right-hand man after nearly 20 years on the bench together. Reyes says those who do get close get to know a kind, funny man who cares about his family, his team and his religion. (Wilton is an active member of the Church of Latter-day Saints).
“Coach is into his discipline and hard work, but behind closed doors, he has a big heart,” says senior setter Sean Carney, who dealt with the death of his father during the last week of the 2009 season. “That’s a side of him that only a few people could see, and I was fortunate enough to experience him being there for me. He’s a tough man, but he has a golden heart.”
Last summer, after Wilton’s mother was hit by a car and killed, he decided it was time to step down as head coach. He remained steadfast with his decision all year, accepting an assistant-coaching position with the Brigham Young University women’s team.
Three of his five children live on the mainland, and the change just made sense right now, Wilton says. “I’m real at peace with this. I really think it’s time to let someone else have all the fun, to do this job.”