Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 | 2 a.m.
About seven years ago, Paul Nihipali was all set to leave Chaparral High School.
It was pegged for turnaround status by the Clark County School District, meaning most teachers would be reassigned as part of the makeover aimed at improving low graduation rates.
Nihipali, like many of his colleagues, interviewed elsewhere for a teaching and football coaching job. But, unlike some others, new administrators at Chaparral wanted him to stay.
The coach has been as much a part of the school as anyone associated with it in its more than 40 years. His children graduated from Chaparral; he has spent most of his 30-year teaching career there, and when other families sold their homes because the neighborhood declined, he proudly stayed. He’s been in the same house near Flamingo Road and Mountain Vista Street since the early 1980s.
So his wife, Janie, intervened when he was offered a job at another school. She persuaded him to tear up the transfer papers.
“My wife told me, ‘You don’t belong at that other school. You belong at Chaparral,’” Nihipali told a group of his players Wednesday, fighting back tears as he announced his retirement.
“You have to understand that Chaparral isn’t just a school. Chaparral is a family. It’s my family,” he said.
Nihipali, 63, a physical education and weightlifting instructor, doesn’t want to retire. But he’s going in for heart surgery at the end of the month, and while the operation doesn’t mean he'd have to stop working, it would limit the way Nihipali coaches and teaches.
And if Nihipali is going to coach, he’s going to do it his way. His method of teaching involves complete participation: If an athlete in his class is lifting weights, Nihipali is too; if a player is running sprints, so is Nihipali.
Nihipali is a gentle human being who always sees the best in kids. He didn’t care where someone came from or how big they were; he was determined to get the most out of them. And not just on the football field. His retirement speech focused more on preparing for the upcoming season and making sure players are on track academically than it did rehashing his career.
Multiple times the coach talked about the “opportunity to serve” his players.
"We aren't happy about it. He's not happy about it," Xavier Antheaume, Chaparral's athletic administrator, said of Nihipali stepping down. "Coach thought he had some unfinished business."
Nihipali was elevated to head football coach four years ago, and under his watch, the perennial losing program did the unthinkable: It won a playoff game for the first time since the early 1990s and reached back-to-back state semifinals. The postseason runs showed students at the school, and not just football players, that when you put in hard work, you can achieve.
Nihipali knows a thing or two about hard work. Many people didn’t realize that once practice ended, his work was just beginning. Nihipali had a part-time job at the airport as a package handler, meaning frequent 16-hour days in succession. Never did he complain about the workload and never did he not give his best to the football team.
When you have five kids and 26 grandchildren, balancing your time becomes a way of life. So does teamwork. The coach repeatedly thanked players and his assistants, and of course his wife, for being part of the process. They combined to create the family Nihipali feels so passionate about. (Full disclosure: I’m part of the family. I'm a Chaparral graduate.)
Whether it was coming out of pocket to provide players a meal, which he and his wife frequently did, or simply being available for a post-practice chat, mentoring the children became Nihipali's life’s work. He wasn’t only a coach and teacher. He was a role model and father figure, a man who wasn’t afraid to show he cared.
He made sure the players understood their importance in his life. They aren't just athletes on a roster. They are his family.
“I love you guys,” he said.