UH win would top off roller-coaster season
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
At the nadir of the University of Hawai'i football team's tumultuous 2009 season, head coach Greg McMackin found himself in the distinguished company of Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, Tennessee's Lane Kiffin and Penn State's venerable Joe Paterno as coaches who have had Web sites dedicated to their removal.
The indignities didn't stop there. By early November, following six consecutive UH losses, McMackin had earned a No. 2 ranking on a national Web site's list of "coaches on the hot seat" (a fact duly noted, of course, on the "Fire Greg McMackin" Facebook page).
Even the police department got in on the act with a fake report that cracked wise on the team's inability to recognize the white powder used to mark the end zone.
But with one surprisingly significant game left to play tonight, it's McMackin who is laughing best.
If the Warriors pull off a victory over Big 10 power Wisconsin at Aloha Stadium, they will finish the regular season with seven wins, the magic number to receive an automatic invitation to the Hawai'i Bowl and a how-fitting-is-that date with a resurgent Southern Methodist team led by former Hawai'i coach June Jones.
That this young, injury-riddled team would have an opportunity to extend its season seemed as likely as Santa fielding punts on fourth down just five weeks ago when the Warriors dropped to 2-6 following a road loss to Nevada.
But that was before their four consecutive wins, capped by a thrilling victory over bowl-bound Navy last weekend.
The run has done more than resuscitate a moribund fan base (attendance at the game was the highest in two years), it also seemed to silence the vocal quarter calling for McMackin's head on a green-and-white platter.
"Our coaches and players stayed together and continued to work hard and believe in each other," McMackin said. "I don't listen to negative people who want to put limits on this team. I believe in positives."
Count athletic director Jim Donovan among those positively impressed by the team's late-season turnaround.
Following a tough loss to Idaho, Donovan admitted that he was "frustrated" with the state of the program but said he would wait until the end of the season to evaluate McMackin's performance.
Donovan yesterday reiterated that he would reserve judgment until "all the evidence is in" but added that he was happy with the team's ability to salvage the season.
"I'm certainly very, very proud of Coach Mack and the players for what they've accomplished in the last four games," Donovan said. "The fact that they have a meaningful game to play (tonight) is an indication of how hard they've worked to get better. I'm very hopeful."
For objective evaluators, the Warriors' struggles weren't impossible to predict. A year removed from having to replace quarterback Colt Brennan and his cadre of NFL-worthy receivers, the team faced the prospect of entering this season without Adam Leonard, Solomon Elimimian, Keala Watson and most of the rest of its vaunted 2008 defensive unit. To make matters worse, the painfully inexperienced squad was scheduled to play five of its first eight games on the road, including consecutive trips to Washington State, UNLV and Louisiana Tech.
The team won its first two games before being waylaid by a rash of injuries, including season-enders to starting quarterback Greg Alexander and starting wideout Rodney Bradley.
As the losses mounted week after week, the tenor of public criticism grew more heated. By mid-October, both casual and hard-core fans were openly pining for the not-so-distant past under Jones and calling for McMackin and his assistants to be fired.
Given the state of the local economy and drastic budget cuts, firing McMackin was never a likely option, regardless of how the season played out.
For his part, McMackin said he's always felt secure in the support he's received from UH administrators.
"I never thought about it (getting fired)," he said. "I committed to UH and UH committed to me. I feel complete support."
Still, "fire McMackin" sentiments were common in the angry comments that singed sports radio airwaves and roiled blog discussion boards around the state during the team's losing streak.
"He handled it well,"said quarterbacks coach Nick Rolovich. "He made sure that our focus was always on the next game. He never addressed the negativity that was out there."
Senior defensive tackle Rocky Savaiigaea said coaches and team members drew closer as they struggled to remain positive.
"There were still a lot of loyal fans, but there were also a lot who doubted us," Savaiigaea said. "All we had was each other. Every week, Coach Mack would tell us that it was the people in the room — the players and coaches — that was going to win the games for us and it didn't matter what negativity was going on around us."
'IT REALLY HURT'
Still, Savaiigaea said, it was difficult not to notice the turn in public opinion.
"It really hurt," he said. "People were cheering us on when we were 2-0 and saying how they were loyal fans. But then we started losing a few and there was hardly anybody in the stands, everyone was calling for people to get fired, and people were saying that they had no faith in our team."
He credited his coach for taking the brunt of the criticism and for keeping the team together despite the emotional toll exacted by each fresh loss.
"The people who say 'fire him,' or put up these Web sites, they're not the ones waking up at 4:15 every morning and working hard to make us better," he said.
Keani Santos heard her share of negative comments as she watched boyfriend Elliot Purcell, a defensive end, and his teammates struggle on the field.
"It's so shame when people do that because the coaches are the ones who stay up day and night trying to do the right thing. There are a lot of great fans who want the team to win, but nobody wants to win more than the players and coaches."
A month ago, it seemed all but certain that Santos would be enjoying a peaceful Christmas Eve at home with Purcell and their young son. Now there's a distinct possibility that she will have to spend the day packed tight amid a throng of strangers.
And Santos couldn't be happier.
"I'm nervous," Santos said. "But whatever happens, it was a great season. They had a lot of downfalls and they overcame a lot just to get here. I hope they win because they deserve it."
VICTORY OVER NAVY
As predictable as the Warriors' struggles now seem, so too was the potential for their recent upswing. UH returned to the win column with home games against lower-tier WAC teams Utah State and New Mexico State, then beat San Jose State (currently tied for last place in the conference) on the road.
But few predicted that UH would beat Navy, which entered the game having already notched big wins over Georgia Tech and Notre Dame.
"I commend the team for not giving up," Leonard said. "When you're in an uphill battle, you can can it or you can fight back. That's what they're doing."
Indeed, with a re-energized home crowd screaming encouragement throughout the contest, the Warriors pulled out what may have been the most significant win of McMackin's brief tenure as head coach.
After the game, McMackin, mic in hand, walked over to the north end zone to thank fans, the UH band, cheerleaders, Rainbow Dancers, even the baton twirler, for their loyalty and support.
"I really felt that we had the 12th Warrior out there that night," McMackin said. "I just wanted to thank them for helping us win."
The significance of the moment wasn't lost of Savaiigaea.
"You could see that all of the weight was lifted off his shoulders," Savaiigaea said of McMackin. "He was under so much stress, but the way we played and the way we finished the game, you could see how happy he was. Everybody is happy and alive. It's just fun right now."
McMackin and his team say they are determined to prove that the Navy game was no fluke.
"We have loyal and true fans who have stayed with us and who know that we've given our best every week, whether we're beating Navy or losing to Boise State," McMackin said. "We have a game to play (tonight) and we're going to bring that same effort and hard work."