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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 21, 2008

Judgment day for UH is Saturday

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist


(Milestone UH games in 29 seasons of WAC membership)

1. UH 39, Boise St. 27 (2007) — Earned UH its first outright WAC championship in a nationally televised game that set the stage for a Bowl Championship Series bid the following week.

2. UH 31, Fresno St. 24, 2 OT (1999) — Won UH a share of the conference title with game that set the tone for the biggest single-season turnaround in NCAA history — going from 0-12 to 9-4.

3. UH 36, BYU 32 (1992) — Game that put UH on the way to its first WAC title.

4. UH 56, BYU 14 (1989) — Beating perennial power Cougars ended a 10-game losing streak to BYU and launched UH to its first NCAA bowl bid.

5. BYU 13, UH 3 (1981) — UH was poised to end BYU’s WAC domination in a televised battle of nationally ranked teams at Aloha Stadium, but couldn’t dent the end zone.

6. BYU 41, UH 38 (1993) — The turning point for UH’s hopes of back-to-back WAC titles — and so much more — came in this game where a field-goal try bounced off the left upright in Provo.

7. BYU 18, UH 13 (1984) — Victory — and a pass that could have derailed BYU’s national championship season — slipped through the hands of UH receiver Walter Murray in the end zone.

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The year was 1979, third-year head coach Dick Tomey was on the sidelines at still-sparkling Aloha Stadium and the overriding question as the University of Hawai'i debuted as a fledgling Western Athletic Conference member was: Could it be competitive in its first conference home?

Proving that the more things change the more they also remain the same, UH opens its milestone 30th season of WAC football Saturday and the now-70-year-old Tomey will again be on a sideline in Halawa, only this time in the colors of San Jose State.

And, once again, the question will be: How competitive can UH be?

In three decades UH has gone from the newest addition in a changing WAC to the senior partner and defending champion of the nation's most far-flung and heavily shuffled conference.

"UH is the senior member of the WAC and over the last 30 years their programs have certainly brought national attention and limelight to the WAC, especially last year with their BCS appearance," commissioner Karl Benson said. "While there may be confusion from time to time about who is in the WAC and who isn't, when you talk about Hawai'i you think of the WAC; and when you talk about the WAC you talk about Hawai'i."

When UH joined the WAC, after 15 years of romancing and two previous rejections, the realization of Gov. John Burns' vision of a conference home for UH was heralded as "the most important happening in the athletic history of (UH)."

The passage of time has underlined the worth of that statement. After the struggles of being an independent, the WAC brand provided UH not only a focus and a measuring stick but a platform for validation. Last year's unbeaten regular season march to the Sugar Bowl and 12-1 finish was the ultimate testament to that dream.

For a time last season, UH was the nation's only unbeaten team. It climbed into the top 10 and became only the third "outsider" to crack the Bowl Championship Series. What's more, the Warriors' success became, as the late Gov. Burns had foreseen, a rallying point for the state and bridge for the university.

In their pinnacle season and only outright WAC football title, the Warriors ended Boise State's five-year run of domination, set a new standard in the WAC and, for this year especially, gave rivals a new target to shoot for.

In 1992 and '99, when UH shared conference championships, it forced conference opponents to raise their games and budgets. Both times they were standards UH had difficulty holding to.

After the Holiday Bowl triumph and 11-2 finish of '92, UH went six years and a couple coaching changes without another winning season. After the 9-4 turnaround and Aloha Bowl season of '99, the Warriors dropped to 3-9 before rebounding.

In neither of those seasons was the offensive overhaul as pronounced as what has taken place this season with a largely new coaching staff, triggerman and components.

Now, with one quarter of the schedule behind them in a 1-2 start, the Warriors have likely seen both the strongest (Florida) and weakest (Weber State) teams they will face over the 13-game haul. For sure they have taken their longest road swing.

In No. 5 Florida and Oregon State, the Warriors have had their shortcomings illuminated. In Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) Weber State, they have had an injection of confidence. With an open week, they have had some time to both heal and work on deficiencies.

Now comes the WAC where Boise State, hot off an upset of Oregon, attempts to retake the WAC. Where Fresno State, which hasn't shared a conference title since 1999, seeks a breakthrough. And, where, in short order, UH's worthiness as a defending champion will be determined. Or, exposed.

For going on 30 years, the WAC has been where UH has gone to measure itself. That much hasn't changed.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.