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Coaching Debuts

By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.

They say you only get one chance to make a good first impression. That’s largely true, whether it’s a job interview, blind date, grand opening or movie premiere. Head coaching debuts, however, are a different story. After all, is it really fair to judge a new coach if his first game is against a national powerhouse? Who could imagine that a school’s winningest coach would get crushed by 55 points in his first game?

We thought we’d examine the UH coaching debuts of every Rainbow Warrior football coach in the Division I era. Here’s what we found:

LARRY PRICE – (Sept. 14, 1974) HAWAII 15, BYU 13. The Rainbow Warriors failed to score a touchdown, while BYU reached the end zone twice. But UH placekicker Reinhold Stuprich’s school record five field goals were enough to give Price a W in his head coaching debut. Hawaii led, 15-7, with less than eight minutes left in the game, but QB Alex Kaloi threw a pick-6 that brought the Cougars within 2. BYU then tried a two-point conversion, but Hawaii’s Ken Shibata knocked Cougar QB Gary Shiede out of bounds just short of the goal line. Another UH turnover gave BYU an opportunity to steal the victory in the game’s final seconds, but Cougar placekicker Mark Uselman’s 25-yard FG attempt went wide right. Trivia Notes: The game was the final home opener played at Honolulu Stadium, as the 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium would debut the next season. Also, the Cougars’ first TD of the game was scored by a young RB named Todd Christensen, who would go on to win two Super Bowls as a tight end for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.

DICK TOMEY – (Sept. 10, 1977) NEW MEXICO 35, HAWAII 26. Coaches generally don’t like moral victories, but sometimes you take what you can get. The New Mexico Lobos walked into Aloha Stadium as two-touchdown favorites, and for a while it seemed even that spread was being too kind to the home team. Tomey reached into his back of tricks on Hawaii’s offensive snap, calling a double-reverse flea-flicker that resulted in Blane Gaison firing a 30-yard strike to receiver Jeff Cabral. Still, the Lobos led 27-3 at the half. In the second stanza, as Tomey would later say, “We found pride.” UH tailback Gerald Green led the way, scoring on a 3-yard sweep to give the Rainbow Warriors their first TD in the Tomey era. Green finished the game with 124 rushing yards on 22 carries. QB Jeff Duva, a transfer from UCLA, only had four completions in the game, but he made them count, keying a fourth-quarter drive that resulted in another TD. Hawaii would outscore New Mexico 16-0 in the final quarter, giving the 25,532 fans in attendance a reason for optimism as the final gun sounded.

BOB WAGNER – (Sept. 5, 1987) HAWAII 44, CAL STATE FULLERTON 0. As coaching debuts go, it’s hard to do better than this. Bob Wagner’s first game as UH head coach was a resounding success, from the debut of Paul Johnson’s spread offense to the defense pitching its first shutout in four years. Admittedly, Fullerton wasn’t exactly a top-tier opponent, but the 43,018 fans in attendance didn’t mind. QB Warren Jones, making his first career start, passed for 206 yards and ran for another 74. RB Heikoti Fakava rushed for a career-high 157 yards in just 11 carries. The defense was even more formidable, holding the Titans to minus-11 rushing yards – a new UH record. Defensive end Al Noga, as expected, dominated the game, finishing with 7 tackles, including 2 tackles for losses and a sack, despite sitting out the fourth quarter.said Titans coach Gene Murphy, “Noga should be playing for the [NFL’s] Giants or Bears right now.” After the game, Wagner downplayed the lopsided score, insisting “We were fortunate to win. We’re not nearly as good as the score indicates. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

FRED VON APPEN – (Aug. 31, 1996) BOSTON COLLEGE 24, HAWAII 21. Close, yet so far. Hawaii led 21-13 in the final quarter, but could not hold off the Eagles when it counted most. Boston College’s backup QB, future NFL Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck, directed two scoring drives in the game’s final five minutes, and Eagles placekicker John Matich booted a 42-yard FG as time expired to spoil Fred Von Appen’s UH coaching debut. BC was aided by a holding call on Hawaii CB Al Hunter, which allowed for the FG attempt at the UH 25-yard line. Hawaii DB Eddie Klaneski was disconsolate after the outcome. “This is the worst type of loss. It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “We had this game. We had it, and it got away.” QB Glenn Freitas had a solid outing for Hawaii, passing for 107 yards and 2 TDs, and adding another score via a 1-yard run. Freitas was also visibly shaken after the game, telling a reporter, “This is the worst loss of my life. I’ve never had a dame that hurts like this. Never.”

JUNE JONES – (Sept. 4, 1999) NO. 21 USC 62, HAWAII 7. With 76 wins and six Bowl game appearances, June Jones is Hawaii’s all-time winningest coach. So it’s easy to forget that Jones suffered the worst UH coaching debut imaginable – a 55-point blowout home loss to nationally ranked USC. The unveiling of Jones’ run-and-shoot offense fizzled badly, as the Hawaii attack was completely shut down by the physically superior Trojans. Hawaii’s lone score came in the third quarter, when DB Quincy LeJay picked off a Carson Palmer pass and returned it 21 yards for a pick-six. It was a disappointing result both for the Rainbow Warriors and the fans who packed the sold-out Aloha Stadium. It also extended Hawaii’s losing streak to 19 games – the longest in the country. Thankfully, things would get better, as Jones led Hawaii to a 9-3 record and a victory over Oregon State in the Oahu Bowl.

GREG McMACKIN – (Aug. 30, 2008) NO. 5 FLORIDA 56, HAWAII 10. If June Jones’ first game as UH head coach was a challenge, imagine Greg McMackin’s reaction to his own coaching debut opponent: Tim Tebow? Florida? In Gainesville? The result was predictable. After a scoreless first quarter, the Gators took advantages of UH miscues to dominate the rest of the way. Florida scored there non-offensive TDs – two pick-sixes and a punt return – and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow put up his usual efficient numbers: 137 passing yards (1 TD) and 37 rushing yards in three quarters of play. For Hawaii, new QB Greg Alexander struggled. He was 11 for 21 for just 57 yards; he also threw 2 interceptions. “I had a piss poor game,” he would say later. Inoke Funaki came off the bench to pass for 110 yards and UH’s lone TD. Said McMackin after the game: “I don’t have have any excuses. I’m responsible for everything. I still believe in this football team.”

NORM CHOW – (Sept. 3, 2012) NO. 1 USC 49, HAWAII 10. You knew it was going to be a rough day for Hawaii when, on the very first play from scrimmage, USC’s Matt Barkley connected with receiver Marquise Lee for a 75-yard touchdown. The blowout loss spoiled a homecoming of sorts for new UH head coach Norm Chow, who served as USC’s offensive coordinator during the Trojans’ two most recent national championship seasons. For UH, the game was a departure from the run-and-shoot attack that June Jones and Greg McMackin employed for the previous 13 seasons. QB Sean Schroeder made his Rainbow Warrior debut and, after struggling in the first half, acquitted himself well. Schroeder finished 24 for 39 for 208 yards, 1 TD and 2 picks. On the opening drive in the second half, Schroeder hooked up with Matt Harding for an 18-yard score. “We started only one senior and a bunch of kids who never played before,” Chow remarked after the game. “There will be jitters and tough times. In the second half, we settled down. I told our kids we could still go 10-1.” (Spoiler Alert: Hawaii finished 3-9.)

NICK ROLOVICH – (Aug. 27, 2016) CAL 51, HAWAII 21. Nick Rolovich’s first game as UH head coach was a history-making event even before the game was played. For the first time, the Rainbow Warriors would play a game on international soil – specifically, inside ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Australia. It was a competitive contest early on. After Hawaii attempted an onside kick to open the game, Cal converted a short drive for a touchdown. UH struck right back, however, and QB Ikaika Woolsey connected with receiver Marcus Kemp on a 39-yard catch and run for a score. Hawaii responded to another Bars TD with an electrifying 53-yard scoring run by RB Diocemy Saint Juste. However, UH was shutout in the second quarter and Cal went on a 17-0 run that the Warriors could not recover from. Woolsey finished the game with 234 passing yards, and UH’s rushing attack netted another 248 yards. Hawaii’s defense was simply porous, surrendering 51 points and 630 offensive yards. Cal QB Davis Webb paced the Bears’ attack with 441 passing yards and 4 TDs.

TODD GRAHAM – (Oct. 24, 2020) HAWAII 34, FRESNO STATE 19. The start of the Todd Graham Era of UH football was jeopardized by the COVID-19 pandemic, until the Mountain West approved an eight-game, conference-only schedule that saw Hawaii open their season on the road against Fresno State. The Rainbow Warriors responded to the challenge by rolling up 552 yards of total offense against the Bulldogs – including 323 on the ground – en route to a convincing win over their longtime rivals. RB Miles Reed (109) and QB Chevan Cordeiro (116) both rushed for 100+ yards to lead the attack, with Cordeiro adding 229 passing yards. Cordeiro and newcomer Calvin Turner Jr. each scored two rushing TDs. On defense, UH had four takeaways, including a pair of INTs by safety Eugene Ford. With the victory, Graham became the first head coach since Bob Wagner to win his UH coaching debut.

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