Prior to the opening day of spring practice, newly hired Hawaii coach June Jones told the Rainbows they would be part of the greatest football turnaround in NCAA history.
Some players embraced this optimism immediately, but most from last season's team, which went 0-12, weren't making any postseason plans. They were wondering if the Rainbows' third head coach in five years was just talking.
"I had to get them to start believing in themselves and believing in us as coaches," Jones said. "It wasn't easy, but I knew after watching film of the games last year that we had some talent."
Over the next few months, Jones did that--and then some, leading the Rainbows to an 8-4 record this season.
Hawaii's eight-game improvement not only tied for the greatest single-season turnaround in NCAA history with Stanford's 1940 team and Purdue's 1943 squad, but the Rainbows tied for the Western Athletic Conference championship and were invited to the Oahu Bowl.
Saturday's game against Oregon State will be Hawaii's third postseason game in 10 years. The Rainbows lost to Michigan State in the 1989 Aloha Bowl and beat Illinois in the 1992 Holiday Bowl to finish 11-2.
However, they hadn't had a winning season since then. If they win Saturday, they will have more victories this season than in their previous four seasons combined.
In their second game of this season, they ended a nation-worst 19-game losing streak with a 31-27 win over Eastern Illinois. Two weeks later, they snapped a 24-game WAC road losing streak by shutting out Southern Methodist, 20-0.
"Before this year, I could count the number of victories we had on one hand," fifth-year lineman Kaulana Noa said. "I've had six offensive line coaches, five offensive coordinators and three head coaches. At first, we weren't sure what Coach Jones was all about. But by the end of spring, we started to believe we could win."
Bowl Games Hawaii CEO Lenny Klompus, whose organization operates the Aloha and Oahu bowls, announced after spring practice that if the Rainbows won seven games, he would invite Hawaii to play in the Christmas doubleheader.
When told of Klompus's guarantee, Jones said: "We can't even start talking about that until we see how we do in our opener with" Southern California.
For that game Sept. 5, the first sellout crowd in five years packed Aloha Stadium in anticipation of better times. The Rainbows proceeded to get pounded by the Trojans, 62-7.
"I'll never forget what Coach Jones told us," senior quarterback Dan Robinson said. "He said it was just one game and to forget about it. There was still plenty of time to get this thing turned around."
Hawaii ended its losing streak the following weekend. The victory was against Division I-AA Eastern Illinois, and despite gaining 541 yards (a school-record 452 passing by Robinson, who tied a school record with four touchdown passes), the Rainbows needed a defensive stand on a fourth down and one at the Hawaii 21-yard line with less than six minutes to play. When the game ended, many players ran all over the field in jubilation.
"I didn't really realize how bad things were until I saw the faces of our players after that game," said Jones, who played for Hawaii in 1973 and '74 before going on to play quarterback in the NFL. "To see the tears running down their cheeks told me I'd made the right decision of coming back to Hawaii."
"Coach Jones is worth every penny for what he has done for this state," said Gov. Ben Cayetano, who had a public three-year feud with previous coach Fred vonAppen. "He has brought back pride to the islands and made our football team viable again."
Jones has accomplished this feat his usual way--with the run-and-shoot offense. Hawaii was third in the nation in passing yards, averaging 328.7 a game. Robinson set 30 school records and was eighth in the country in total offense (313.5 yards a game), and wide receiver Dwight Carter was seventh nationally in receiving yards, averaging 104.4 a game.
They also got considerable help from tackles Noa and Adrian Klemm, and linebacker Jeff Ulbrich (169 tackles)--all of whom have been selected to play in the Senior Bowl.
"This is a great offense for quarterbacks and receivers," said Carter, who set single-season school records for receptions (77) and receiving yards (1,253). "I'm sure Coach Jones will bring in some big-time players over the next few years."
Jones was named national coach of the year by Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News. He finished runner-up to Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer for the Associated Press coach of the year award.
"I know I'll never forget him," Robinson said. "He won over a group of guys who were skeptical when he was hired. Not everybody was sold on him. But he came in and did the job."
CAPTION: Coach June Jones is a hero in Hawaii.
CAPTION: STORYBOOK SEASON (This chart was not available)