There was no epiphany, no grand moment of realization or bolting awake in bed thinking, “I’ve got it.” It was more a football coach going through what had become a miserable season and thinking perhaps it was time not for something new but for something old.
“I was miserable,” Hawaii Coach Nick Rolovich said about last season before he and his team boarded a plane for New York on Tuesday ahead of the Rainbow Warriors’ fourth game of this season, Saturday at Army. “It was the worst season I’d ever had in football. It wasn’t just that we weren’t winning, although that was part of it.
“We had, let’s call them, cultural problems in our locker room. I was putting out fires every day. I’m from a family of firefighters, and I figured I’d gone into the family business. I thought maybe we could start over once the season ended. There just didn’t seem like any reason not to do it.”
And so when Hawaii’s 3-9 season finally came to a merciful end with a 30-20 defeat to BYU — the Warriors’ fifth consecutive loss and ninth in 10 games — Rolovich decided to start over by going into his own past.
“ ‘We were going to lose a bunch of guys to transfer, and we had more players who I had recruited,” the 39-year-old said. “When I got here [before the 2016 season], [former coach] Norm [Chow] had recruited a lot of tight ends, a lot of big linemen and good running backs. That wasn’t exactly run-and-shoot personnel.”
The run-and-shoot was a popular offense at the college and NFL levels in the 1990s. It usually employs no tight ends and no fullback with five players flanked wide or moving around on most plays. June Jones used it to turn Hawaii into a formidable team at the start of this century.
The quarterback for the final nine games of the 2001 season, when the Warriors finished 9-3, was Rolovich, who had transferred from City College of San Francisco a year earlier. Over his last three games at Hawaii, Rolovich threw for 1,548 yards and 20 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Rolovich bounced around pro football for seven years, including stints in the NFL (Denver Broncos), NFL Europe and the Arena Football League, before he got into coaching. He was offensive coordinator at Nevada in 2015 when the call to come back to Hawaii came after the Warriors finished 3-10.
Rolovich wasn’t sure whether he wanted the job.
“I liked being a coordinator,” he said. “I enjoyed being in the offensive room. And I knew there were always going to be issues at Hawaii, that it was never going to be an easy job. But it was Hawaii that set me on my career path. I felt I owed the school something and thought it was worth taking a shot.”
The issues Rolovich talks about are difficult for those who haven’t lived and worked on Oahu to understand. Hawaii is paradise to vacationers, but it can feel very isolated if you live there. Former Warriors basketball coach Riley Wallace used to talk about “rock fever.” Rolovich prefers to call it “the Magellan mind-set.”
“You come here, you have to be prepared to be an explorer. The geography’s not going to change. The volcano isn’t going to all of a sudden erupt and create a bridge between here and the mainland. When we fly somewhere, we aren’t going to see land for 4½ to five hours. I tell players when we recruit them that in four or five years when they leave here, they’ll be worldly men. They can go in any direction and be comfortable.”
No one travels more than Hawaii. The school is part of the Mountain West Conference, which means it must make at least four trips to the mainland each season — the shortest trip, one way, is about 2,410 miles to San Jose — all on commercial flights. There’s no money in Hawaii’s budget to fly charter. The round-trip flight to JFK International Airport for the Army game will be 9,966 miles.
“That’s the way it is for us every year,” Rolovich said, laughing. “There’s no choice in the matter, so complaining about it or using it as an excuse makes no sense. If we’re a good team, we’ll win anyway. If we’re not, then we won’t.”
So far this season, the Warriors have been almost shockingly good, starting 3-0 with a new offense and questions at starting quarterback that weren’t answered until Cole McDonald won the job during the 43-34 victory at Colorado State to begin the season.
McDonald played sparingly last season as a redshirt freshman behind two-year starter Dru Brown, completing 5 of 9 passes for 22 yards. But Brown was one of seven players who left the program as graduate transfers (he’s now at Oklahoma State), leaving the quarterback job wide open, even as the team was learning the run-and-shoot.
The version Hawaii runs is a little different from what it ran when Rolovich was playing but not by much.
“The core of it is the same,” he said. “The game’s changed since 2001, so there are different wrinkles, but it’s essentially the same offense.”
McDonald has been nothing short of brilliant running it: He already has thrown for 1,165 yards and 13 touchdowns without an interception. The Warriors have scored 145 points in three games after finishing last season with 273.
Being a coach, Rolovich is far from satisfied. “Cole should have had one picked off last week,” he said when the no interceptions stat came up. “We got a little sloppy [in the 43-29] win over Rice, and we can’t do that if we want to keep winning. Teams now have three games of this offense on film, so we’re going to have to make adjustments because they’ll be more prepared for us.”
Even so, at a school that has had one winning season (2010) since Jones left after going 12-1 in 2007 and after a miserable season that ended with seven upperclassmen leaving, a 3-0 start is nothing to trifle with.
“I know how tough it’s been on our fans and alumni,” Rolovich said. “One of the reasons I came back was to try to bring some joy to this place again. If we’re doing that, then it’s all worth it.”
So far, so good.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.