BY BOB HOGUE –Trying to determine the next best step in the conference alignment drama for the University of Hawaii athletic program is like trying to pick up a jellyfish — no matter how you do it, you know it’s going to be a tricky proposition, and most likely quite painful.
With Boise State, and then Nevada and Fresno State announcing their imminent departure from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), and with BYU likely shying away from its consideration of moving from the Mountain West Conference (MWC) to the WAC, Hawaii is left stranded in a weakened conference—and now has limited options.
“Hawaii is in a curious challenge and very much at a disadvantage because of our geography,” said Hawaii State Senator Fred Hemmings (R-Kailua-Waimanalo).
“As a state and as a program, Hawaii has faced many adversities over the years. I’m confident we can overcome this,” said Hawaii State Representative Mark Takai (D-Aiea, Pearl City).
One option is for the WAC to look to Football Championship Series (FCS, formerly known as Division 1-AA) schools such as Montana, Texas State, Texas San Antonio, UC Davis, Sacramento State, and others as possible replacements for its departing members, while keeping current programs like Utah State and Louisiana Tech from defecting.
But there are huge challenges for this to happen — primarily the fact that not all FCS schools have the resources or capacity to reclassify to Division 1-A.
The second most talked-about option is for Hawaii to move its non-football teams into another conference — either the Big West or West Coast — and go independent in football. That scenario has even been talked about on a national level.
“I’ve always felt that besides Notre Dame that Hawaii is the most logical fit for going independent,” announced Fox Sports Radio host John Fricke on a recent national call-in show. “Who wouldn’t want to go to Hawaii?”
That’s the million dollar question — or in the University of Hawaii’s case, a several million dollar question.
“It’s possible, but a lot of work would have to be done. Notre Dame is independent and its TV contract is worth millions. We’re not in that league,” said Takai. “Perhaps there is chance to think creatively. If we market ourselves not only as Hawaii’s team, but as the team from throughout the Pacific and Asia, maybe we could compete financially.”
Hawaii was independent once before — prior to 1979. As an offensive lineman, Hemmings played briefly on one of those UH teams back in mid 1960’s.
“Travel was a major challenge,” he recalls.
With the expense of today’s travel, scheduling would be the “biggest challenge,” said Takai. “With a conference, you really only need to fill an extra four or five games a year; (As an independent), you’ve got to schedule all 12 or 13. That may mean our team could be on the road 75 percent of the time.”
Hawaii Tourism Authority Brand Manager Michael Story says Hawaii is an attractive destination for major teams.
“A team like USC will bring a large following,” he said. “In the past, with teams like Wisconsin, Alabama, Michigan State, Washington, Oregon State, and USC, we could definitely see an increase in visitor arrivals.”
But Story shied away from an opinion on whether University of Hawaii as a football independent makes sense dollars-wise.
“The team mix (of a potential independent schedule) is significant,” Story said. “If you said ‘we only have five home games, but among those five are UCLA, Michigan State, and Oregon State’, as opposed to lesser names, then perhaps it could work.”
Story said that UH will definitely miss Boise State and Fresno State coming to the islands as conference opponents. “In 2005, 2007, and 2009, when they traveled here, we did see an increase (of visitor arrivals) by a statistically significant percentage,” he said.
In the recent history of major college football, schools like Florida State, Boston College, Tulane, and others have been independent for a significant period, but only Notre Dame, Navy, and Army have been major football independents since 1990. Those three have been able to fill their schedules each year. Whether Hawaii could do the same, and survive financially, is the risky proposition—the metaphorical jellyfish—that school officials are trying to handle in the opening weeks of the 2010 football season.
“I have all the confidence in the world in (UH Athletic Director) Jim Donovan,” said Takai. “We have the right guy in place to lead us during this difficult time. We’ll get through this.”
Bob Hogue is a freelance writer for Hawaii Reporter.