Monday | November 20, 2017
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Wright On: Never too late to honor Wagner’s upstarts at UH

It took a while, too long, really, but it’s all good now for Bob Wagner and the bubble-bursters who played for the 1992 Rainbow Warriors football team, the one that showed the school and the world that all things are possible, after all.

Enshrined in the University of Hawaii’s Circle of Honor over the weekend, the 1992 team joined a select group of above-and-beyond inductees that included Dave Shoji, Don and Marion Murphy, K. Mark Takai and Marilyn Moniz-Kaho‘ohanohano who will have commemorative plaques displayed in the Stan Sheriff Center.

“It’s been overdo for (the 1992 team),” Wagner said the other day, “that was a pretty special season with some great people.”

It’s also better for Wagner, unceremoniously released following the 1995 season in what most observers saw as a political move inside the UH structure that set the program back years. In came Fred von Appen and after nine years under Wagner generated a 58-49-3 record that included school record-tying nine-win seasons, back-to-back in his second and third years (only Dick Tomey, who had named Wagner his defensive coordinator had reached nine wins previously) and the first Western Athletic Conference championship.

The direction of the program made a complete about face after Wagner, going 5-31 in three years, including an 18-game losing streak at the end.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the school recognized Wagner, which helped heal some psychic wounds.

“Not good for a while,” is how Wagner described his post-coaching treatment by the school. “I stopped giving money for a while, but I’m giving some now once again.”

And he’s moving back to the Big Island where he served as Kamehameha athletic director from 2002-2012, having decided to build on some land purchased years ago on the Hamakua Coast.

All these years later, some of Wagner’s early ambitions recall a time when the college football world was a different place than it is today, but the drive to overcome the obstacles and accomplish things that have never been done is still relevant at every level of the game. Not that current UH coach Nick Rolovich needs to be told what to do — former Rainbow Warriors generally get it — but it’s always helpful to consider how the past led to the present.

When they named him head coach in 1987, following Tomey’s decision to accept an offer from Arizona, Wagner had an inner impetus that guided him, one most Rainbow Warriors fans have heard about.

You might be able to figure it out just from looking at a list of UH schedules and results over the years, but Wagner, an assistant for six years before he became Tomey’s defensive coordinator in 1983, didn’t figure out the motivation in his head, he felt it in his gut.

“I told myself,” Wagner said, “that if we don’t beat BYU in my first four years, I don’t think I’ll want to be the football coach at Hawaii.”

Who could blame him? The teams played almost every year and in his 10 years as an assistant coach, the Rainbow Warriors were 0-8 against BYU. Wagner could tell you about every one of those games, and the misery lasted two more years as a head coach until the watershed 56-14 victory over the Cougars in 1989 — he will remind you that UH lost to BYU 24-23 the year before “when we missed a field goal” — that invigorated the program from the inside out.

Fans, naturally, wanted to beat BYU, some of them because of the prevailing attitude that the Cougars took Hawaii lightly, didn’t consider the Rainbow Warriors to be near the rivalry it had with the University of Utah.

Players felt it, almost like they finally got through some rite of passage. They were 5-2 before that game and then nearly won out with wins over UTEP, Pacific and Oregon State before a regular season 35-35 draw with Air Force to close out 9-2-1 and accept the Aloha Bowl bid against Michigan State.

The school’s first conference championship came in 1992 when they were 11-2 and beat Illinois in the Holiday Bowl. You knew it was all headed in the right direction when they opened with challenging road wins at Oregon (24-21), and Air Force (6-3), before turning away BYU 36-32 at home. That result left Wagner 3-3 against the Cougars and it has been a fevered rivalry ever since.

Everybody loves Tomey, one of the more respected college coaches on the West Coast in the last 30 years or so. Wagner is among the biggest supporters of Tomey, who never had a bad word to say about anybody, even in those times when BYU was routinely beating the Rainbow Warriors.

“(Tomey) always used to say, ‘That’s a really good program and (former coach) Lavell Edwards is really a great coach and a good person,’ and I just didn’t want to hear that crap,” Wagner said, laughing. “I wanted to beat them.”

Wagner didn’t walk around telling everyone how much he wanted to beat BYU, but it kept grinding inside on him, it drove him to demand more of himself, his assistants and his players.

And then it happened and it was if a transformation took place.

“We proved we could do it,” Wagner said, “and sometimes, that kind of confidence can be all you need.”

These days, Wagner doesn’t hang on every UH play, he keeps up when he can, he likes what Rolovich is doing, and he had a word of experience for those fans who saw the recent departure of offensive line coach Chris Naeole as some harbinger of dread.

“Those kind of things happen a lot more than most people realize,” Wagner said. “I once had to step between two coaches who were about to go at it, but nobody threw a punch and we ended up working things out.

“So much of it is personality driven,” Wagner said. “So many times a new coach will hire someone he’s heard about from a friend he trusts, but then after time, people have their own ways and things can get crossed up.

“The only difference these days, is that back then, assistant coaches weren’t making enough to quit in the middle of a season, you had to work it out.”

Wagner had an unconventional mix on his staff that included triple option exponent Paul Johnson (Georgia Tech head coach these days), who understood that Wagner was going to throw the ball 15-20 times a game, maybe more.

The inclusion of Johnson opened some schematic possibilities that wouldn’t have been available in an old I-formation or Power I attack. Good things happen when people with different perspective work together to solve problems. Johnson’s schemes and options opened some possibilities for Wagner, and conversely, Johnson probably learned a thing or two from his former head coach.

In it’s ground-chewing, time consuming option offense, Johnson developed wide receiver Demaryius Thomas into 25.1 yards per catch weapon that got him drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos.

Smart coaches are always learning, expanding their base of knowledge while still motivated by their core motivations.

You wonder, with these 2017 Rainbow Warriors, does Rolovich have one of those private motivations that will tell him he’s either getting it done or not getting it done after a couple years?

If so, let’s hope it has something to do with matching up with and beating San Diego State. Outlasting a deflated San Jose State team at home is one thing, squaring up with the Aztecs, despite their weekend loss to Boise State, would be tantamount to having arrived.

Thanks to Tomey, Wagner, June Jones and a host of others, roadblocks have been kicked out of the way since the 1990s.

Playoffs? Sure, that’s a goal, but first they should take a cue from Bob Wagner and prove they can beat the bully on the block.

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