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The Lost Season

By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.

December 10, 1977. The headline of the Honolulu Advertiser’s sports page read: “Bows Bounce Out of Slump, 85-68.” The night before, in front of 4,494 fans at the Neal Blaisdell Center, the University of Hawaii men’s basketball team put away South Dakota State to pick up its first victory of the 1977-78 season. UH center Tony Wells bullied the visiting Jackrabbits for 28 points and 10 rebounds.

With the win, the Rainbow Warriors improved to 1-4, and the hope was that the team had found its bearings after a rocky start to the season. The 6’8 Wells was proving to be a force in the paint, and head coach Larry Little’s decision to insert two freshmen into the starting lineup – forward Tom Beckerle and  guard Mark Hackett – had paid immediate dividends.

The victory was a sign of hope. It was a promise of better things to come.

It was also the only win Hawaii would notch all season.

For all of the success attained by UH sports teams over the years, there have been a few lowlights every now and then. The football team’s dismal 0-12 season in 1998 comes to mind. For the Rainbow Warrior basketball program, the low point was the 1977-78 campaign, when Hawaii went 1 and 26.

(Oh, and in case you’re wondering, 1-26 is not the NCAA record for futility. Several schools have endured winless seasons, most recently Grambling State, which went 0-28 in 2012-13.)

In hindsight, Hawaii’s woeful season was predictable. Larry Little, in his second year as head coach, was still picking up the pieces after the NCAA put the program on a two-year probation after uncovering rules violations committed by the previous coaching staff. The sanctions all but crippled Little’s recruiting efforts. Whereas Hawaii once lured the likes of future NBA players such as Bob Nash, Tom Henderson, Tommy Barker and Reggie Carter, the 1977-78 team had, in the eyes of legendary former UH coach Red Rocha, “only one player (Wells) who can start for any good Division I team.”

Of the 26 losses, only nine were by fewer than double digits. The average margin of defeat was 13.4 points. The losses included an 80-57 loss to Santa Clara in the season opener, a 78-53 beating at the hands of Sidney Moncrief and the Arkansas Razorbacks, and a 104-68 drubbing by the Houston Cougars.

One of the most significant games of the season – and perhaps in program history – was a road defeat to Little’s previous school, Centenary. When Little accepted the Hawaii coaching job, his top assistant, Riley Wallace, took over the coaching reins at the Shreveport school. On Jan. 12, the very next day after the Gents beat Hawaii, Centenary unceremoniously fired Wallace. Wallace would join Little’s coaching staff after the season and, of course, go on to serve as the winningest head coach in program history. In addition, Centenary guard Aaron Strayhorn, who led the Gents with 24 points in the win over the Rainbow Warriors, would transfer to Hawaii after the season.

For the UH team, the losing took its toll. Forward Kevin Johnson, one of the team’s top scorers, was in and out of the coaching staff’s doghouse. Another rotation player, forward Brian Austin, quit the team with just five games left in the season. Even Wells wasn’t immune from the team’s run of misfortune, as he suffered a separated shoulder in the next-to-last game of the year.

Wells finished his junior campaign as Hawaii’s leading scorer (14.8 point per game) and top rebounder (7.3). Sophomore Gary Newsome paced the team in assists (3.5), while fellow sophomore Cliff Sanchez was UH’s best free throw shooter (.753).

Despite the unforgettably forgettable season, the Rainbow Warriors, as a team, never gave up. Neither did their fans. The average home attendance for the year, according to the UH media guide, was 3,880 – not bad at all for a 1-26 team.

After the season, Little did his best to keep a positive outlook. “It’s been a very trying year,” he acknowledged at the team’s postseason awards banquet. “We had a young, ambitious and dedicated team. We were lacking in court time and court savvy, but I really do believe that effort was put forth by the team. They never stopped trying. And we had guys who learned a lot.”

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