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When Arizona Came to Town

It was the game that Dick Tomey didn’t want any part of. But it was on the schedule – the season opener, in fact, so it had to be played.

For the first time in 12 years, Tomey returned to Aloha Stadium for a college football game. This time, however, he would stroll out of the visitor’s tunnel – as head coach of the 24th-ranked Arizona Wildcats.

Third-year Hawaii head coach Fred von Appen, on the other hand, was eager to get the action started. His Rainbow Warriors lost their last six games of the previous season, finishing 1997 with a 3-9 record. For the veteran coach, the Arizona opener would be a chance to reverse Hawaii’s fortunes and get 1998 off to a rousing start.

September 3, 1998: More than 33,000 fans filled Aloha Stadium, ready to watch this battle between UH coaches past and present. The referee blew his whistle. UH kicker Chad Shrout boomed the ball into the Wildcats’ end zone…

Less than 15 seconds later, Arizona’s Chris McAlister was in the opposite end zone, celebrating his 101-yard kickoff return for a score. 6-0, Wildcats.

“There was nobody but the kicker, and I knew the kicker wasn’t going to bring me down,” McAlister would later recall. McAlister would go on to be a first-round NFL Draft selection by the Baltimore Ravens. He would help the franchise to a Super Bowl XXXV victory and play in three Pro Bowls.

Said von Appen: “That was devastating. We came out jacked up, ready to play. But that [kickoff return] was like letting the air out of the balloon.”

The Rainbow Warriors responded in the second quarter when QB Dan Robinson, replacing starter Josh Skinner, threw a 25-yard TD strike to Dwight Carter. The extra point failed, but Hawaii was only down, 7-6.

Unfortunately for the home team, Arizona scored 20 straight points and shut out UH the rest of the way. The Hawaii offense sputtered. Leading rusher Charles Tharp could only muster 47 yards on the ground. Robinson finished 8 of 17 for 83 yards.

Final score: Arizona 27, Hawaii 6.

Charles Tharp led Hawaii’s ground attack with 47 yards.

“It was gratifying to win,” said Tomey after the game. “I’ve watched so many teams that were ranked come in here and get nailed because they’re not tough enough. To play Hawaii, you’ve got to be tough physically. I don’t think we got out-hit. That was my primary goal: not to get out-hit.”

About half of the Arizona coaching staff had Hawaii ties, including defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson and secondary coach Duane Akina. Both were former UH assistants during Tomey’s tenure in Manoa.

And then there was Bob Wagner, the Wildcats’ linebackers and special teams coach.

Wagner served as UH head coach from 1986 through 1995, guiding the Rainbow Warriors to their first Aloha Bowl appearance; their first WAC title; a Holiday Bowl victory over Illinois; and three big wins over conference rival BYU.

He was unceremoniously dismissed as UH coach following the 1995 season, when the Rainbow Warriors went 4-8.

If Wagner felt any special satisfaction beating UH, however, he didn’t show it.

“To me, it was just a game,” Wagner told the Honolulu Advertiser during a postgame interview. “I would have much rather played somebody else and beat somebody else.

“I’m happy that we won. I’m not happy that we had to come over and get the first one against Hawaii.”

For von Appen, the loss was a harbinger of a frustrating and futile season. Hawaii would finish 0-12 – the worst record in college football history – and von Appen would himself get the pink slip. All was not lost, however. The events of 1998 would ultimately usher in the June Jones era of Hawaii football.

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