Eleven months ago, the world wasn’t looking so bright for the University of Hawaii football program. In January of 2008, Hawaii was crushed 41-10 in the Sugar Bowl; June Jones bolted for SMU and Athletics Director Herman Frazier was fired after years on intense criticism. Not to mention, the football team had lost Colt Brennan and all four starting wide receivers.
The entire state of Hawaii received a reality check realizing that all was not perfect with the UH football program. A ridiculously miniscule budget, degrading facilities, and lack of support from the administration were Jones’ main reasons for leaving home.
Defensive coordinator Greg McMackin was tabbed as Jones’ successor and was the best choice to obtain a smooth transition of power. Former UH lineman Jim Donovan was hired as the new A.D. and brought a new sense of enthusiasm and thankfulness to the athletics department. Donovan instantly granted a larger football budget and worked on improving the football team’s aging facilities. Donovan also started new construction on the Ching Athletics Complex after a five-million-dollar donation from the Clarence T.C. Ching foundation. The football team even inked a new equipment deal with Under Armour apparel that yielded much more money for the program than their old contract.
However, expectations were low for the Warriors coming into the 2008 season. With all the obstacles and transitions along with a very tough schedule, many experts predicted Hawaii to completely fall off the map after their storybook season. The defending WAC champs were predicted to finish fourth in the conference.
The Warriors opened the season with road games against the University of Florida and Oregon State. The Warriors struggled throughout the first half of the season offensively and lost decisively in both games against the future national championship contender and second place Pac-10 team respectively. Hawaii started the season off in a 1-3 hole and was written off by many experts. The Warriors responded by upsetting then #22 Fresno State on the road to avoid their fourth loss of the season in five games. It was UH’s first ever win against a nationally-ranked opponent on the road. Hawaii would eventually find a starting quarterback in Junior Greg Alexander and clawed their way back to bowl eligibility winning the required seven games. The team also managed to finish 2nd in the WAC. In the regular season finale, the Warriors blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead in under five minutes to let #12 BCS-bound Cincinnati escape the island with a win.
The stinging effects of the team’s incredible meltdown on national television were soothed a day later when they learned their opponent for the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The Warriors are slated to play tradition-rich Notre Dame at Aloha Stadium on ESPN in front of an expected sell-out crowd.
Though the Fighting Irish are 6-6 and not an elite team anymore, their name is still the biggest in college football and attracts more attention than anyone else. The Warriors have a chance to knock off Notre Dame after two close losses to them in the late 90’s, back when UH was still horrendous.
For Hawaii, the bowl game transcends beyond the mediocre records and puts together an anticipated match-up of Hawaii’s team against the football program with the most national championships and Heisman Trophy winners in history.
Hawaii has a lot to be excited about regarding the 2009 recruiting class. The Warriors currently have the 53rd ranked recruiting class according to Scout.com.
Although 53rd isn’t a class stock full of NFL stars, it sure is a huge improvement for a program whose recruiting class averaged 89th over the previous five years. This class also contains two Punahou standouts. Gunslinger quarterback Cayman Shutter and versatile athlete Kimo Makaula are two solid players that have Hawaii excited about the future.
A 7-6 record shouldn’t be the normal standard for the UH football team. However, in a year where a head coach, entire record-setting offense, and 1-3 record were added to the equation, the determination and perseverance of the Warriors should obtain the approval of the fans. A program that is not only recruiting mainland talent, but also keeping a considerable amount of its homegrown stars home must be on the right track to success.
I got my Christmas wish already. Hawaii managed a winning record and got back to the Hawaii Bowl. Forget Santa Claus, Notre Dame is coming to town this Christmas.