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1977: The Year We Believed

The improbable and remarkable season of UH football that changed everything.

UH football coach and miracle worker Dick Tomey in 1977, his first season in Hawaii.

Photo: Courtesy Dick Tomey

The 1977 UH football season was supposed to be a disaster. When Coach Larry Price quit in May of that year, in a squabble over delayed facilities improvements, many assumed the next season was a lost cause. Even if athletic director Ray Nagel managed to hire someone right away, there’d be no time for proper recruiting, and barely any time for spring practice. There wasn’t even much to build from—with a 3-8 record in ’76, the existing team was hardly a world-beater.

The guy who Nagel found wasn’t immediately inspiring, either. Sure, Dick Tomey had 15 years of assistant coaching under his belt, six of them at UCLA. But this would be his first time as a head coach, and he was landing in a program that Honolulu Star-Bulletin sports editor Bill Kwon described at the time as having “madcap athletic philosophies and provincial idiosyncrasies which tend to make it seem more like a mental rather than major institution.”

Still, Tomey was excited. “Many people I knew felt that this was not the right time to take this job,” he says. “But I thought I was lucky to get a shot at it. I was so excited to get started that I didn’t learn what my salary was until my third day on the job.” ($35,000. For comparison, the average annual salary for head coaches at major colleges in 2012 was $1.64 million.)

The university made the most of his enthusiasm—the promotional materials sent out for the new coach were plastered with the phrase “positive thinking.”  Tomey and his coaching staff were going to need it: They had six weeks to do what normally takes eight months.

With such a compressed time frame, there was no time to get fancy with the team’s strategies. Tomey gave the offense just four runs and six passes, and the defense just one front and three coverages, banking on the players to minimize their mistakes and play fast. He did throw a bit of showmanship into the mix, though. “We were told that the crowd arrived late, so we decided to have something special for the beginning of each game to get the fans into it—special plays, a no-huddle offense, platooning personnel every three plays, the onside kick.”

Having decided to stick to fundamentals, Tomey’s real challenge was in building the team. “Football is not complicated, people are,” he says. Forty of the players were new to the program, with most of them joining the team in the last month, so not only did the coaches have to figure out who could do what, they had to remember who was who.

Jeff Duva, who would play quarterback that year, remembers, “There were so many new players, the staff wrote our names on white tape and stuck it on our helmets. The last time I played with my name on my helmet was when I played Pop Warner football!”

Tomey instituted an open-door policy for his office, to make sure he was as available as possible. “If a player comes by to see you, stop whatever you are doing and focus on him,” he says. “If you don’t, he may not come back.”

Defensive lineman Sam Tong says, “Prior to the season, we were all apprehensive, but I was quickly impressed with the way that the coaching staff identified the major obstacles, the tough stuff, and dealt with those first. And then the rest fell into place. I never forgot that.”

Tomey also made sure he recruited and retained the best players he could. As a brand new head coach, with no track record in Hawaii, he had to make his case using the power of that patented positive thinking.

Blaine Gaison, who redshirted that first year, but went on to a long career in the NFL, remembers: “I literally had my bags packed, ready to go to Boise State, when Coach Tomey came over to my parents’ house in Kaneohe to convince me to stay in Hawaii and play for him. He told me straight up that he couldn’t guarantee that I would play quarterback, or that I would even play at all. He said the only things he could guarantee was that I had a scholarship at UH, and that we would win. After he left, I started unpacking my bags.”

Three months after Tomey arrived in Hawaii, it was time for the first game, against the University of New Mexico. UH lost, but not by much, 35-26, and there were already flashes of Tomey’s crowd-pleasing style peeking through. He had the band play the team onto the field with the Hawaii Five-O theme, and opened the game with a reverse pass from backup quarterback Bobby Acosta to wide receiver Jeff Cabral that immediately got the crowd’s attention.

The second game, against Colorado State, also a close loss, 20-16.

But the third game! Tomey started the game with a no-huddle offense with the first and second units alternating every third play. The crowd went crazy. Everything came together from there: The offensive line executed perfectly, fullback Wilbert Haslip rushed for 221 yards—a school record—and was named UPI National Back of the Week. Stan Kua, a freshman walk-on from Kauai, kicked the final extra point in the fourth quarter. In the end, it was a complete team victory over Idaho, 45-26.

The 1977 team photo.

Photo: Courtesy UH Athletic Department

 

Flush with excitement, fans, players and coaches all lingered after the game to soak it all up. Honolulu Advertiser sports writer Dan McGuire wrote, “Those first couple of minutes Saturday night were the most entertaining I’ve seen in many, many years. The fans went beserk in a nice sort of way, laughing and screaming and clapping. The unpredictable Tomey had struck again.”

“This is just the beginning,” Tomey promised after the game. “It’s going to get a lot better.”

Word spread quickly, and soon Aloha Stadium was packed with crowds of almost 32,000 per game, eager to witness this unexpected UH phenomenon. By October 3, things were exciting enough for Star-Bulletin sports editor Bill Kwon to call Tomey a “miracle worker,” writing, “We’ve become so accustomed to weekly miracles from … Tomey that visions of a winning season are now dancing in our heads.”

Sure enough, the momentum kept building, against respectable teams such as Southwestern Louisiana and Bowling Green, and then, in late November, a stunning upset over national powerhouse University of South Carolina.

“I still remember that game, when we really peaked as a team,” recalls former offensive guard Greg McElroy. “We were winning and there was 14 minutes left. I knew what a win like that would mean for the program and that damn clock wouldn’t move fast enough!” The minutes did tick away and the Rainbow Warriors locked in a convincing 24-7 win and, more importantly, a 5-5 season record.

Who could have dreamed, at the beginning of the season, that this new coach and team would have a shot at a winning season? The suspense, as UH faced off against Arizona on December 3, was intense.

Of course, not every fairy tale is perfect. Arizona ended up overpowering Hawaii, 17-10, with its superior strength.

The loss was disappointing of course, but it couldn’t suppress Hawaii’s enthusiasm about the larger story. At the beginning of the season, even UH diehards were hoping just for a 3-8 season, and Tomey and his players had delivered so much more. It was an amazing beginning to what would turn into a golden age of UH football.

Over the next nine years, unprecedented numbers of players started going to the National Football League. UH entered into and was immediately competitive in the tough Western Athletic Conference, which featured such schools as Brigham Young University, Utah, San Diego State and Air Force. UH games were even aired on network television, including unforgettable games against some of the nation’s best.

Fans kept coming to the games in greater numbers every year, kept caring, kept supporting, and kept living and dying with the Rainbow Warriors. And it all started with a little positive thinking.
 

,September