High School Sports

Replacing Jon Kitna at Lincoln – it almost led Masaki Matsumoto to quit

Lincoln coach Masaki Matsumoto reacts as Bonney Lake continued a late touchdown drive. Photo taken in Tacoma on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015.
Lincoln coach Masaki Matsumoto reacts as Bonney Lake continued a late touchdown drive. Photo taken in Tacoma on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. dperine@thenewstribune.com

How do you replace Jon Kitna?

How do you duplicate his NFL pedigree, commanding presence, football understanding, community involvement or that he was one of Lincoln High School’s own?

And who was Masaki Matsumoto to try?

Never mind Matsumoto was coming off a season at Bernstein High School in Los Angeles in which he was named California’s coach of the year by The Los Angeles Times.

In his first season at Lincoln, the Abes were 10-0 before their first loss came in the first round of the 3A state tournament – Lincoln’s third state appearance in school history.

Matsumoto for the second time will be featured on ESPN in an extended 30-minute edition of an “E:60” piece titled “Lettermen” that will air at 8 a.m. Sunday on ESPN2. The first version, which first broadcast on Oct. 12 on ESPN, ran 15 minutes and documented his endeavor to change the culture at inner-city Bernstein, including through emotional letters of love he asked his players’ parents to write for their children.

New Lincoln football coach Masaki Matsumoto on a mission

Masaki Matsumoto takes over the Lincoln Abes football program for Jon Kitna with a lot of expectations surrounding him. He spent the past three years as the head coach at Hollywood Bernstein in Los Angeles.

TJ Cotterill tcotteril@thenewstribune.com

Still – Matsumoto isn’t Kitna. And a senior class that had known no other coach but the former Seahawks quarterback had a difficult time transitioning to this coach out Hollywood.

“Really up until this past March, it was tough for me. I definitely contemplated leaving,” Matsumoto said. “This was the first time in my nine years of teaching and coaching where I wasn’t enjoying it.”

He met with former Pacific Lutheran University coach Scotty Kessler, a mentor of his, at Life Center on Union Avenue.

“He just challenged me and said, ‘Hey, it’s not whether you stay or leave Lincoln – it’s whether you’ve decided to take care of yourself – spiritually, mentally and physically,’” Matsumoto said. “He just kind of hit it right on the head. He was right – I was unhappy and I was struggling because I wasn’t taking care of myself in those areas.

“It was around then I started making some changes in my personal life and that kind of helped me be a better coach and I started enjoying the kids more, enjoying coming to work again – because from January until about March I wasn’t enjoying being here.”

Gone is the distant, somber and stressed Matsumoto, Lincoln offensive coordinator Shalls Jacome said.

“It was tough on all of us with living in a new place, going from Coach Kitna to us, and something just came over Mat,” Jacome said. “He just didn’t seem like the same guy. Us (assistant coaches) would ask, ‘Is he all right? What the heck is going on?’

“But he took some time off for himself – there’s just been a huge, huge change. Even from like six months ago. Now he’s great, and it’s very obvious and apparent when you talk to him. We love it, and the kids feed off of that, as well.”

Matsumoto was born in Japan. He moved with his mother to Seattle when he was about seven years old, he said, following his parents’ tense divorce and his mother’s wish to start anew in the U.S.

Matsumoto’s older brother stayed with his father in Japan.

Keiko Matsumoto attended Shoreline Community College and then the University of Washington, studying linguistics. But before that she said she studied counseling in Japan.

Masaki said he got his idea for the love letters from Bothell coach Tom Bainter. But the idea of parental affirmation was instilled when he was much younger.

“I studied under the professor (in Japan) and the one thing he said is ‘You have to love yourself and then you can love others,’” Keiko said. She was the main reason Masaki said he decided to move from Los Angeles to Tacoma.

“I always, when he would go out to middle school and high school, I told him ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ So I think he got that and that it was important. I think he got his message from how he grew up.”

Jacome grew up in Hollywood, attended high school there, coached there and lived there.

It was only because of Matsumoto that he left there last summer and moved to Tacoma when Matsumoto was hired at Lincoln.

“I wouldn’t have moved for any other guy,” said the 25-year-old Jacome. “I see Mat as more of a life mentor than a boss or head coach. When I struggle with things or have questions on things that have nothing to do with football, Mat’s the guy I go to first. Someone like that is worth making a move for.”

No, he’s not Kitna.

But, then again, Kitna told Matsumoto that he’s been through similar circumstances since he left Lincoln to coach at Waxahachie High School in Texas.

“I talked to Coach Kitna like two weeks ago – he was like, ‘It takes time for that team to take on your personality,’” Matsumoto said. “It’s not that Coach Kitna’s coaching was bad, his personality was just different than my personality. It just takes time for that to take place and he said he’s going through the same thing in Waxahachie.

“The transition, though, was tough. I knew it was going to be tough, just not that tough.”

Asked if he feels more confident and at comfortable entering this season – Wednesday will mark the first practices of the 2016 season – than at this point last year:

“Oh yes,” Matsumoto said as he took in a deep breath and exhaled.

“Very much. Very much.”

TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677

@TJCotterill

“Lettermen” on ESPN2

ESPN will again air an “E:60” feature title “Lettermen.” The different between this and the one that first aired on Oct. 12 is this is an extended 30-minute verson. The previous segment ran for 15 minutes.

This enhanced version will run for the first time at 8 a.m. Sunday on ESPN2. Here’s every time it will run, according to Mike Farrell of ESPN.

▪  8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Sunday

▪  8 p.m. Sept. 2

▪  2:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. Sept. 5

▪  4 a.m. Sept. 18

▪  2 a.m. Sept. 19

▪  11:30 p.m. Sept. 25

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