By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.
This Saturday, the University of Hawaii football team takes on UNLV in Las Vegas. Reflecting on this longtime rivalry, I started thinking about some of the top players to ever wear a Rebel uniform.
Ask “Who as the greatest USC Trojan football player of all time?” and you’ll get different answers. Or ask, “Who is the greatest Ohio State Buckeye football player of all time?” and you’ll hear different responses. Ask the same question about UNLV football, however, and the same name will inevitably come up: Randall Cunningham.
Cunningham, who played for the Rebels from 1982 through ’84, is the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (8,020), TD passes (59) and total offense (8,224 yards). He is also UNLV’s career leader in punting average (45.6). In fact, Cunningham was twice named an All-American as a punter.
In 1985, the Philadelphia Eagles selected Cunningham in the second round of the NFL Draft. The 6’4, 215-lb. QB primarily served as the backup to veteran Ron Jaworski for most of his first two seasons, but head coach Buddy Ryan handed him the starting reins at the start of the 1987 campaign, and Cunningham thrived. By the time he retired in 2002, Cunningham had collected the 1990 PFWA MVP Award, 3x All-Pro honors and 4x Pro Bowl selections. He was inducted to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2016 and has had his No. 12 jersey retired at UNLV.
As successful as he was at UNLV, Cunningham met his match on the two occasions he faced the Rainbow Warriors.
On October 15, 1983, Cunningham and the Rebels were shut out by Hawaii, 23-0, in Vegas. Cunningham, then a junior, struggled in that contest, completing only 17 of 39 pass attempts for 205 yards and a pick. In the first quarter, Hawaii safety Rich Miano stripped the ball from Cunningham, and defensive lineman Falaniko Noga recovered. Cunningham also finished the game minus-10 in rushing yards.
His Hawaii counterpart, Raphel Cherry, produced far better results, passing for 256 yards, including a 37-yard TD strike to receiver Duane Coleman in the first quarter. Cherry also had 57 rushing yards.
Cunningham and Cherry would duel again a year later, on Sept. 30, 1984, this time at Aloha Stadium. In front of some 38,000 fans, Hawaii again prevailed, 16-12. Cunningham threw for more yardage – 232 compared to Cherry’s 115 – but he was also picked off three times. Two of the interceptions were by safety Kurt Kafentzis. It was the first time in four games that Cunningham threw an interception.
For Hawaii, the win snapped a three-game losing streak to start the season. After the game, UH head coach Dick Tomey told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, “It feels good. We needed this [win] more than anything.”
UH kicker Richard Spelman was even more direct, saying, “It’s the greatest. It’s better than sex.”