A day in the life of Coach Wanaka

Coach Wanaka has been the volunteer assistant coach for the Arizona baseball program for the last 4 seasons. Working as the hitting coach and exclusively with the catchers and outfielders, Wanaka’s mentorship has not gone unnoticed. Last year the combination of talent and coaching allowed University of Arizona baseball team to be ranked the best offense in the Pacific Coast Conference, the biggest Division 1 conference on the West Coast.

Previously, Wanaka was at the University of Nevada, Reno, as their volunteer assistant. Volunteer assistant coaches do not get paid for their work, but rigorously put in the same—if not more—hours than the coaches on a payroll.

During his time at UNR, Coach Dave Lawn led and coached the pitchers while being compensated for his instruction. Once he and Wanaka got past introductions, Lawn soon designated Wanaka with a special name: “Chief.”

Standing at 6’4, Chief exudes energy when he walks into a room. If you were to first meet him, you may be intimidated but he’s got a disarming combination of a goofy personality, unrepeatable laugh, an endless jokes and stories. 

“When we first got to Nevada, Coach Lawn thought that my last name, ‘Wanaka’ sounded native American. So, it just stuck with Chief and I’ve been Chief ever since,” Wanaka says. “And everywhere I go, everyone knows me as Chief and very rarely am I called by my given name.”

Ryan Haug, a former Wildcat baseball player, and current player Austin Wells, have worked closely and have a great relationship with Chief.  

“When you first see Chief, you know, the first thing I think of is a big huggable bear. He’s a bigger dude, but just has a heart of gold, man,” says Haug. “He’s passionate about what he does. He loves this university, loves the team. And then you could just tell he really loves baseball. I mean, the dude literally lives and breathes it.”

“And his laugh … I mean, you can’t repeat that laugh. It’s one of a kind,” says Wells.

Chief’s passion for the game of baseball doesn’t just show by his tireless efforts in coaching, but his relatability with his players.

“I liked to have fun with the players, and if I’m beating them down with something, they’re just going to get frustrated and it’s not going to help them,” explains Wanaka. “I feel like by having fun with them it kind of relaxes them and lets them loosen up.”

If you catch him around the baseball field, it will most likely be in the batting cages where most of his coaching is done. You will also find him wearing the same blue U of A windbreaker—faded from the consistent use and washes, making it a staple of his wardrobe. 

“I love being in the cages one-on-one with the kids. It’s where I wanna make the connection with the players,” says Wanaka. “It’s just me and him. He can turn on the music, whatever he wants, and we can just make a connection and try to get him to be the best person that he can be on the field and off the field.”

“I get to know him a little bit better, what’s their family like, where they want to go in the future,” describes Wanaka. “We can just hash out any kind of problems he may be having with school or off the field issues and things like that.”

For Chief, school happened a long time ago, but his vivid memories from his hometown still reside. He’s from a small town in northern California, Weaverville. It’s about four hours north of Sacramento, up in the mountains.

“(When I) graduated from high school, there were I think 2,000 people in town, no stoplights, a couple of gas stations, a grocery store. That’s about it,” says Wanaka.

Every coach has their own story of what sparked their interest in coaching. And for Chief, it happened during a very unexpected time.

“I played baseball all my life, from when I was just a little guy all the way up through junior college. And then, I ended up getting hurt in junior college and that just ended my playing career,” he says. Um, coaching. You know, I coached a team when I was in high school. I coached, uh, like I guess it’d be Babe Ruth aged kids, you know, 13 to 15-year-old kids. And I had a lot of fun doing it,” said Wanaka.

The University of Arizona baseball program has prided their culture on family. The coaches’ kids are always roaming around, getting comfortable with the players and facility—family is always welcome. When you have a job that takes up so much time it is important to have a person that supports you to the fullest. And for Chief, that very special person is Gianni Wanaka his wife.

“I always make fun of him because the first time I saw him, he actually had bleach-blonde hair and he used to wear visors and I would see him and he always had sunglasses on,” Mrs. Wanaka describes. “I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that guy’s mean. I’m sure he’s probably just so mean.’ And then I got to know him and he’s not mean at all.”

Chief’s hours are unpredictable because practice times vary with players’ different class schedules. Chief may be in the field between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. When baseball season starts you might even catch Chief staying overnight to make sure he is prepared for the next day.

“The dude hands down, spends the most time at the field, does an incredible job from scouting to player development,” says Ryan Haug, the former Wildcat baseball player who worked closely with Chief. “Especially when the spring rolls around and we’re in season, he’ll live at the field, and we’ll play Friday night, Saturday night and then a Sunday day.”

The reality for volunteer assistants like Chief is that they are volunteers—they don’t get paid. They don’t get a consistent paycheck nor the benefits that come with being an employee of the university. Many volunteer assistant coaches get paid through baseball camps that the university puts on for the community’s youth. Because of that, volunteer assistants may only see a few paychecks during the summertime depending on how successful the turnout is.

“I think that millions of dollars are being brought in every year and to not have that opportunity given to Chief and to the hundreds of others of chiefs out there at different schools—I think it’s ridiculous,” says Wells.

Coach Wanaka, right, looks on as the Arizona Wildcats baseball team competes against Team USA. (Photo by Justin Wylie).
Coach Wanaka, right, looks on as the Arizona Wildcats baseball team competes against Team USA. (Photo by Justin Wylie).

In April of 2019, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) had their first vote on whether to allow Division I baseball and softball teams to pay a third paid assistant. The result of the April vote as a ‘No’, but due to an error in the review of the voting tallies in April, there was a revote in October. The proposal can be brought back up for another vote in 2021.

            “Obviously, it would have been nice … I’m not in it for the money,” says Wanaka. “Yes, it does help for my family and it would’ve been nice (to get) other perks like being able to recruit. (But) I just keep my head down and keep moving forward, trying to do the best I can every day.”

            With more awareness to the issue of minimal scholarships and the low coach-to-player ratio, hopefully in the future the NCAA can amend the previously established rules. The more support that is given to people like Chief as they spend relentless hours helping their programs, the more college baseball will continue to grow.

Music Credits:

Composer: Galen Huckins

Publisher: Blue Dot Studios

Album: Algae Fields

Tracks:

  • Diatom
  • Collecting Samples

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