Dishing it out on defense
By Ferd Lewis
When the stacks of plates piled up at his night job as a dishwasher at Chuck's Steakhouse in Waikiki, Duane Akina's dreams would sometimes turn to what he really wanted to do: coach football.
Yet even in the steamy, fatigue-induced fantasies of 25 years ago, the Punahou School graduate hardly dared to imagine where he finds himself Wednesday: coaching in the national championship Rose Bowl game.
Being the co-defensive coordinator for the University of Texas, "was beyond what I could have ever dreamed," Akina said.
Being an architect of the defense attempting to slow Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart and derail Southern California's third consecutive national title was a quest all but "unimaginable" during nine months at the kitchen sink.
"Back then," the 48-year-old Akina said with a sense of humor that has served him well, "the most I could hope for was that there'd be some (kitchen) leftovers for me to take home and share with the dog."
Washing dishes was what paid the bills for the newly graduated University of Washington quarterback while he tried to get a foot in the coaching door as an unpaid volunteer at the University of Hawai'i as a stepping stone to a high school or college job.
Playing behind Warren Moon at UW taught Akina that if he wanted to stay in football, it would have to be as a coach. A year as a graduate assistant for the Huskies had given Akina a taste of the business. Enough so that when he returned to Hawai'i he chose, to the surprise of some, to turn down a government job with benefits to make an uncertain run at coaching.
Working mornings at an intermediate school and nights at the restaurant left his afternoons free to volunteer at UH and sit in on defensive meetings getting an education on the other side of the ball. "Dick (Tomey) took a chance on me and one thing led to another," Akina said. "He let me come out and help in the spring mostly because Wags (Bob Wagner) was so terrible at throwing the ball (for the defensive drills), that they needed somebody else."
A year later, when the NCAA allowed schools to add a ninth assistant position, Akina jokes, "if a letter came from somebody that looked like they were applying for the job, I'd hide the mail until I got the job."
Five years at UH, one in Canada and 14 at Arizona eventually brought Akina to Texas, where he quickly learned everything, including the expectations, are bigger.
"Football is very important here and the pressure is immense to win a national championship because that's where the expectations are," Akina said. "My first year (2001), if we don't get upset in the Big 12 Championship game we're playing for the national championship. That was the first time Texas had a team that finished in the top 5 of (the polls) since 1983, but that wasn't enough. You learn that right from the get-go."
As much as Akina has learned in five seasons at Texas, he has also given, helping shape the Longhorns' defense in contributing to a combined 55-8 record.
"Duane started as our defensive backs coach and has become more and more involved with the defense each year," head coach Mack Brown said. "Since he moved into the co-coordinator spot last year, he has played a key role in developing game plans and preparing one of the most successful defenses in the country."
While this will be Akina's fourth Rose Bowl — one as player, one as a graduate assistant and two as co-defensive coordinator — it is, he maintains, "the biggest because of what's on the line and all the hype surrounding the game. Competing for a national championship isn't something everybody gets to do and you never know if it will come around again."
For Akina, the climb from the kitchen makes it all the more special. "Washing dishes is a nice, humbling experience," Akina likes to say. "All quarterbacks should try it at least once."
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 525-8044.