Can University of Hawai'i football return to glory?
HONOLULU—Kennedy Tulimasealii pulls his sleeve up and rubs his left arm, where hair stands upright. "See?" he says. "I get goosebumps just talking about this." The junior at the University of Hawai'i can't stop smiling when his school, his people and his culture come up in conversation. He stayed for them, he says. And he wants others to stay, too.
Tulimasealii, a 6' 1", 285-pound defensive tackle for the Rainbow Warriors, is the prototypical player from the islands: A burly lineman with fast feet and a gentle heart, a soldier in the trenches who tempers his intimidating physical presence with a big smile. A four-star, top-300 recruit from Wai'anae High—a 35-mile drive from Hawai'i's Honolulu campus—Tulimasealii strongly considered going to almost every Pac-12 school, most notably Washington, at which he felt a connection because the Huskies were the first college football program to seriously pursue the undersized prospect. But the islands, which include Hawai'i, Tonga and American Samoa, where Tulimasealii was born, have a special pull on everyone, Tulimasealii says, especially the locals. He wanted to stay to see if he could help bring pride back to the only game in town. He wanted to lift his people.
In the wake of former Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota winning the Heisman Trophy in 2014, and Mariota's stirring acceptance speech in which he thanked Hawai'i nei, beloved Hawai'i, for "teaching me humility and respect," the islands have exploded in football popularity. College coaches from as far east as Mississippi and Michigan now regularly come to search for skill position players. And as budding superstars eye NCAA stardom and the NFL, they understand, because they have a concrete example in Mariota, that it's O.K. to dream bigger and reach for the mainland. If Marcus can do it, the locals say, why not me?
Yet perhaps those dreams can be realized on the islands. Just eight seasons removed from a 12–1 campaign that culminated in a Sugar Bowl berth, Hawai'i seems the natural landing spot for prized local talent. Football is the lifeblood of the state, and playing for the Rainbow Warriors means playing for an entire culture; for decades, pulling on a Hawai'i jersey equated success. But given Mariota's accomplishments at Oregon and an influx of Polynesians on mainland collegiate rosters, Hawai'i coach Norm Chow believes it could now be harder to keep top prospects close to home. Tulimasealii knows that—and wants to change it.
"The adrenaline rush at Ohio State, after the game I started crying a little just seeing the impact the crowd has on those players," Tulimasealii says, referencing Hawai'i's 28–0 loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus on Sept. 12. "So many of those guys are from Ohio and they're singing their alma mater and it's like, 'Hey, I made my hometown happy, I made them proud.'
"I want to do that here."
But who will stick around to help him?
(Kennedy Tulimasealii) Courtesy of Darren Yamashita
Hawai'i, in its fourth year as a member of the Mountain West, faces a host of logistical issues that make it arguably the most unique program in major college football. The schedule alone is jaw-dropping. Consider the Rainbow Warriors' first five weeks of this season: Home against Colorado, at Ohio State (4,541 miles, 10 hours of travel time), home against UC-Davis, at Wisconsin (4,388 miles, 11 hours) and at Boise State (3,225 miles, eight hours). By the end of 2015, each member of the team will have flown more than 41,000 miles; players keep their individual frequent flier points, an incentive coaches dangle on the recruiting trail.
If that sounds exhausting, keep in mind that next year's team will travel to Michigan and Arizona and is in talks to play Cal in Australia in the opening week of the season. Mention this to Hawai'i director of operations Brad Jones, who coordinates all of the Rainbow Warriors' travel, and he cradles his head in his hands as if he has just been hit with a splitting migraine. "Maybe by then I'll be dead," he says somberly. For their trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin the Rainbow Warriors were paid $1.2 million and $1.1 million, respectively, money that will help the athletic department stay afloat in the most expensive state in America. Hawai'i chief economist Dr. Eugene Tian says that in cost of living terms, no state ranks higher than Hawai'i.
In the summer of 2010, when conference realignment reshaped the college sports landscape, Hawai'i abandoned the crumbling WAC and joined the Mountain West with a caveat: The Rainbow Warriors would pay for all of opposing teams' travel costs to O'ahu. That drained the department's finances. Each year, school officials estimate they'll spend anywhere from $1.3 to $1.8 million on visitors' travel. That's roughly 3% of the department's $36 million budget.
The Warriors' travel is complicated, too. They fly commercial from Honolulu to Los Angeles and set up camp at the Manhattan Beach Marriott. From LAX they charter planes to their destinations. After games, every other FBS team in America goes from the stadium to the airport. Hawai'i players wait for the bus because their 6,000 pounds of equipment is flown everywhere, not carted by semi truck. They spend Saturday nights at a hotel, charter to LAX on Sunday mornings and fly commercial back to Honolulu. Most FBS players pack for a few hours. UH players pack for a few days.
Says redshirt freshman receiver Dylan Collie, who transferred to Hawai'i from BYU in December 2014: "We're gone, like, four days for a four-hour game. My girlfriend is always saying, 'What's going on here? This sure is a lot of effort.'" USC transfer Max Wittek, the Rainbow Warriors senior starting quarterback, says it took some time to adjust from a red-carpet Los Angeles lifestyle to squeezing into a middle seat on commercial flights.
But Hawai'i needs pay-for-play dates, partially because the school is locked into a brutal agreement with Aloha Stadium, the state-owned facility where the team plays all of its home games. UH doesn't keep any parking or concession revenue, though the school must pay for people to staff the stadium on game day. It keeps the money from ticket sales, but attendance has declined steadily since 2010, making the cash flow practically nonexistent. Aloha Stadium is 40 years old, and looks the part: The longtime home of the NFL's Pro Bowl, it has no luxury boxes, and upgrades come mostly to improve structure stabilization, not venue aesthetics. Fans call it "The Rust Bowl" because of its aging seats. "The state legislature is not concerned with UH football," says Honolulu resident Brad Chong. "It's the boat: You need a house, you need a car, but boats are just fun. And they always rust, and they always need updates."
The state's biggest revenue generators are tourism and the military; the middling UH football program remains an afterthought. Hawai'i athletic director David Matlin agrees with locals' belief that when the team does well, the entire state feels a financial boost. "When people are excited and enthused," he says, "they spend more money and think of our challenges as opportunities." Still, Hawai'i is limited economically due to its geographic isolation. Tom Jackson, a Georgia native who has lived in Hawai'i for 20 years, says the person who finds more resources in the state, "will be the Gandhi of Hawai'i, because he'll have saved us."
On-campus issues abound, too. Shortly after he got hired in December 2011, Chow rounded up the team and took it into the locker room, where players sanded more than 100 metal lockers before covering them with a fresh coat of paint. "When I first came here, this place was a mess," Chow says. Since his arrival the university has allocated $12 million for an updated locker room, a shared training room, shared equipment and a shared lecture hall. Things are much better than they were, Chow says, but pale in comparison to most FBS facilities on the mainland.
Asked what Hawai'i can do to recreate the magic of 2007, Chow, 69 and in the fourth season of a five-year contract that pays him $550,000 annually, laughs. "Go back to playing Idaho," he says. "When I got here, I told [former] athletic director [Jim Donovan] it was his job to guarantee us four nonconference wins a season. Now we're playing Wisconsin, Ohio State …"
That was almost four years ago. Matlin, who took over as AD in April, says, "As an administrator, I think you're always evaluating your schedule." Yet aside from the need for hefty paychecks, he must deal with matchups that are planned years in advance. And then there's the Hawai'i exemption, which allows UH to play 13 games each season, but says they must happen over 13 weeks, which would leave the team without a bye. Matlin says there are "ongoing conversations" with the NCAA to see if UH could start its season a week earlier, allowing for 13 games plus a bye week. He juggles a variety of challenges, but as a Hawaii native, couldn't turn down an opportunity to help fix things. "If you can change a university, you can change the morale of a state," Matlin says. "And if you do that, you can change a country."
Since taking the job in '11, Chow has watched four ADs, three chancellors and two presidents come and go. He has seen numerous local kids leave, too, drawn away by what he calls, "the mystique of the mainland."
It is hard to keep players here, he acknowledges. "You know, a few of our players joked [after Mariota won the Heisman] that if Marcus likes Hawai'i so much, why wasn't he throwing passes for us?"
(Max Wittek) Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
That question is easy to answer: Mariota, a graduate of Honolulu's all-boys, private Catholic school Saint Louis, wasn't offered a scholarship by the Rainbow Warriors. (In Hawai'i's defense, the only schools besides Oregon to deem Mariota worthy of an offer were Memphis and Washington; most colleges missed on the kid who didn't play significant snaps until his senior year, and had a reputation as a soccer star.)
But the struggles extend beyond Mariota. Locals says UH has lost its mana, the spiritual power that coursed through the program under former coach June Jones, who led the team from 1999-2007 and compiled a 76–41 record that included six bowl appearances. According to cultural traditions, mana is attained either through birth or warfare. For UH, that battle came on the football field.
Under Jones Hawai'i became a WAC power using the run-and-shoot offense, as he embraced local traditions and celebrated Polynesian culture. Jones, who played quarterback at the school from 1973-74, arrived in 1999 after turning down a five-year, $5.8 million contract offer from the San Diego Chargers to accept a $298,000 check from UH. Despite the vast discrepancy, he had long dreamed of coaching the Rainbow Warriors. When he got to campus, Jones said there were only 19 players of Polynesian or Hawai'i descent on the roster. When he left, that total was up to 87.
Hawai'i's off-field brand has always been easy to identify: The Rainbow Warriors value ohana, family, and believe that aloha, love, infuses everything. Parts of Jones's tenure read like something out of a movie script: In ancient tradition, the firstborn in a Hawai'ian family is sometimes hanai'd, or given up for unofficial adoption, to another member of the family. In 2003, Kailua High offensive line product Samson Satele started his career at UH. One year later, lineman Hercules Satele came to the school from Long Beach, Calif. Turns out, they were brothers, though Hercules had been hanai'd to mainland relatives—which Jones didn't know until after he started recruiting Hercules. Reunited in their homeland, they played together for three seasons. Before Mariota won the Heisman last December, Jones characterized him as the hanai child of all of Hawai'i, saying he belonged to everyone on the islands.
But if Hawai'i's off-field identity is set, its on-field identity—other than the haka, the ancestral dance proclaiming strength that was traditionally performed before war and is now done before games—has been lost amid coaching turnover and an unstable athletic department. Chong, the Honolulu resident, puts it like this: "In Hawaii, as soon as we can afford to buy you out, we're doing it." In the early 2000s, the program was known for prolific passers: quarterbacks Timmy Chang (2000, 2002-04) and Colt Brennan (2005-07) both threw for more than 14,000 yards, and Brennan was famously featured on the Oct. 8, 2007, cover of ESPN The Magazine. Now, even though the report two years ago about Hawai'i potentially losing its football program was overblown (the administrator who said that, Ben Jay, resigned last December), it has become tough find footing in a state struggling to get by. "I'm originally from Amarillo, Texas, moved here when I was 15," says Ray Carroll, who has attended every Hawai'i home game since he graduated from the school in 1994. "I go to Allen, Texas, to visit my sisters and it's embarrassing; their high school stadiums are better than what we have … But when we were running the run and shoot, we were all over TV and it was so much fun. Kids wanted to play for UH then."
When Jones and Hawai'i failed to negotiate an extension after the 2007 season, he left for SMU. After six seasons in Dallas, Jones abruptly resigned following the Mustangs' first game last year, citing personal reasons. He moved back to Honolulu, joking that he had a "Dick Vermeil meltdown and needed to get away from the game." In Hawai'i, he volunteers at a few programs—including Saint Louis, Mariota's alma mater—and is on a task force to create a Hawai'i Sports Commission. His passion for the state shines through when he talks excitedly about plans to put all of the major state sporting events (PGA Tour stops, the Pro Bowl, the Hawai'i Bowl, the Diamond Head Classic and the Maui Invitational) together under one umbrella, and possibly build a new stadium that would help make Hawai'i a "sports destination." He says UH will "always have my heart." And he believes the Rainbow Warriors can get back to what they used to be.
Chow, meanwhile, struggles with more than just the attraction of top players to the mainland. Recruiting is a numbers game, and while he says he recruits every local kid who he believes is Division I caliber, he can't take all of them—especially if players increasingly view Hawai'i as a safety school, figuring they can land at UH if they go away and dislike their situation elsewhere. "Can you always come home? Yes," Chow says. "Can you always be on scholarship? No."
He hopes things don't get to that point. For his recruiting pitch to locals, he draws on personal experience: Chow grew up in Palolo Valley and attended Punahou School, a local prep football powerhouse. He left home to play college ball at Utah, and in three years his father only saw him play one game.
"In college, our games got over and all my teammates would leave with their families," Chow recalls. "What's the first thing I do? I go back to the dorm and call my parents—from a landline! I tell kids all the time, 'You don't have to do that. You can stay home and your loved ones can watch you play.'" He points out that most families here do not have the financial freedom to travel regularly to the mainland for college games, as the Mariotas did when Marcus played at Oregon.
But for all its perceived warts, players new and old still think Hawai'i football is a draw for locals—and for outsiders.
(Norm Chow) Rob Carr/Getty Images
Long before Mariota rose to fame—heck, before he was born—Farrington High offensive line standout Jesse Sapolu turned down Pac-10 scholarship offers to play for his home team. Then-Hawai'i coach Dick Tomey emphasized the importance of family and the honor that could come from playing for his people, a push that stuck with Sapolu. "I didn't decide to stay so I could say I stayed—I did it because in my gut, it felt right. I knew it was important to my culture."
Some might have viewed Sapolu's decision to turn down playing in a bigger city or conference as a sacrifice, but he believed he could still realize his NFL dreams. First, he led Hawai'i to new heights: The Rainbow Warriors were ranked in the AP Poll (they appeared at No. 18) for the first time in 1981, his junior year, a fact Sapolu recalls proudly 34 years later. He played 15 seasons at center and guard with the San Francisco 49ers, won four Super Bowl rings and retired in southern California in 1997. He travels back to Hawai'i once a month, cognizant of a shift in local attitude.
In Sapolu's day, locals appreciated kids who stayed—and believed those who left probably did so because they thought they were too good. "It used to be, 'Oh, well he chose the mainland over us,'" Sapolu says. "But now, with Marcus making it big, the whole state is accepting of kids leaving because he represented the city he grew up in, the islands, the Samoan heritage. Even UH fans look at him not as an Oregon Duck, but as a son of Hawai'i."
That mentality could make it easier for players leave. But that sense of belonging, of every root being wrapped around one ohana, could also lure mainlanders.
Collie, the receiver who transferred from BYU, says even as an outsider, he understands the sacred respect for football. "You can't say that anywhere else. On the mainland, the concept of family is gone. Here, just keeping your tickets for home games is tough because every teammate needs more tickets for his family."
There's a deep respect for football in Hawai'i, which Polynesians consider a warrior's sport. The only things more important than football are faith and family—an order that mirrors the South's priorities. And while the SEC has long claimed to be a college football paradise, Collie and Tulimasealii believe Hawai'i's values can persuade anyone with talent, whether local or from the mainland, to consider UH.
"There's still a lot of people who don't know about us," Tulimasealii says. "Some people still think we live in huts and whatnot. But when you get off the plane, this place has a unique pull … the island is gonna talk to you. If we can get recruits here, it's gonna be crazy."
Tulimasealii stayed, he says, because he wanted to help his people rise. Sapolu, Chang and Mariota lifted Hawai'i up; now it's time for the next generation to carry some of that honor, too. It will only take one local staying and shining, Tulimasealii says, for everyone else to follow. They're setting the table for a Hawai'i football renaissance. But in the wake of Mariota's success, do high schoolers have the same passion for UH—or are they already fixated on the mainland?