Three years ago, almost to the day, the Stan Sheriff Center broke out in a booming, Danny Kaleikini-led chorus of: "We Want Nash! ...We Want Nash! ..."
The occasion was the postgame tribute to then-University of Hawai'i men's basketball head coach Riley Wallace, who had coached his last game at the school. And Bob Nash, his long-time assistant, was a popular choice for successor.
But as Nash's third season ended yesterday at 10-20 with 11 losses in the final 12 games and a last-place (3-13) finish in the Western Athletic Conference standings, several signs point to the cash-strapped school attempting to buy out the final year of his extended contract and hiring a replacement.
Nash has not achieved a winning record in three seasons and has an overall record of 34-56 (15-33 WAC), the lowest point of which was not making the WAC Tournament this season.
This year, due to a cost-cutting move, only eight on the WAC's nine members qualified for the March 11 to 14 tournament in Reno, Nev.
It is the fifth consecutive year in which the 'Bows have either lost in the first round or not qualified for the tournament.
When Nash took over, it was envisioned that would change and allusions were made to the UH glory years of the early 1970s when Nash was a record-setting member of the iconic Fabulous Five.
As a player, assistant coach and, most recently, head coach, Nash, with time out for a pro career, has had a 31-year stay at UH, the longest, hands-on association with the basketball program in school history.
"You're always fighting for your job if you don't win enough games," Nash said last week, prior to the team's final road trip. "I don't think a whole lot about what could, or may or may not happen. I don't think a whole lot about it. Obviously, I just try to go out and do the best job I can and that's all I can do. If it's going to be good enough, it's going to be good enough. If not, then somebody else will be sitting in here trying to make it better."
Athletic director Jim Donovan has so far said little about Nash's situation other than, "I'll meet with Bob after the season plays out. That's all I'll say now."
Expectations are they will meet early in the week, following the team's return from Idaho, when it will be announced if Nash is to finish out his contract.
Nash was given a three-year contract when he was originally hired by athletic director Herman Frazier in 2007. Donovan added an additional season last year, taking the agreement through next year, with a much-publicized incentive clause. If Nash led the 'Bows to 18 or more wins — or a postseason appearance — in either this season or next season, an additional year would automatically be added to the contract.
Technically, Nash still has next season to try and achieve the incentives. But amid the middling performances, the popularity of the program and ticket sales have declined, leaving Donovan in a dilemma.
With the athletic department projecting a $2.6 million deficit for the fiscal year that ends June 30, Donovan would likely need approval from Mānoa Chancellor Virginia S. Hinshaw, if not UH President M. R. C. Greenwood, and at least some members of the Board of Regents to buy out the remaining year of Nash's contract.
Nash is believed to earn approximately $240,000 per season, and buying him out would be a considerable investment for an athletic department that has an accumulated net deficit of $10.1 million over seven years.
At least some regents are said to have privately indicated they might support a move to buy out Nash.
NOT A HOT TICKET
In better times, men's basketball was a major moneymaker after football.
But with ticket revenues down approximately 25 percent in the last five years, it remains to be seen whether the program will show a profit when the books close June 30. Unaudited projections have the 'Bows down $26,860 in ticket revenues from last year.
It hasn't helped that UH was 10-11 at home this year, its most losses on a home floor since 1998-99. (Nash's teams are 30-29 at home in three seasons) or that the first 100-point game by an opponent in the 15 years of the Sheriff Center, a 102-89 loss to Cal Poly, came this season.
The Rainbow Warriors have listed tickets distributed this season at an average of 5,634, down 24 percent from four years ago. The 10,300-seat Sheriff Center has operated at less than a third of capacity with actual turnstile attendance at an average of 3,193 this season, down an average of 11 percent from last season and 30 percent from five years ago, according to a UH report.
FRAZIER DUG A 'HOLE'
Wallace said Nash "was put in a hole" from the start of his head coaching tenure in 2007.
Wallace announced his resignation as Hawai'i head coach on Dec. 29, 2006. Nash was named his successor on April 13, 2007.
At the time, then-athletic director Frazier said "a national search" made the process lengthy.
"I made it known to Herman Frazier from the start of that year that I was going to step down and so he should name Bob as the next coach right away," Wallace said. "If (Frazier) did that from the start, the transition would have been smooth and recruiting would have been in place."
Instead, Nash and his assistant coaches scrambled to sign six recruits before the start of the 2007-08 season. Several other higher-rated recruits signed with other programs while the Hawai'i coaching search endured.
NOTHING BUT BAD LUCK
A dark cloud has seemingly followed Nash and the 'Bows ever since.
During the 2007-08 season, starting center Stephen Verwers suffered a season-ending broken leg during a Christmas Day practice, and the 'Bows' defense struggled the rest of the way.
During the 2008-09 season, the team — which did not have any seniors on the roster — made significant strides on defense, but struggled offensively. Four players from that team left the program after the season.
This season, the team has been riddled with injuries and suspensions. The 'Bows started the season with 11 scholarship players available.
Amazingly, all 11 missed either practice or game time due to injury or suspension. Most significant, forward Bill Amis — the leading rebounder in 2008-09 — did not play a single game due to a foot injury.
Guards Dwain Williams (indefinite suspension) and Jeremy Lay (hernia surgery) — the key recruits prior to the season — missed the entire stretch run of this season. That left Nash with only one scholarship guard (Hiram Thompson) available for the final seven games.
"You have to make your luck sometimes, because every team goes through that," Wallace said. "But I've never seen a team that had so many injuries and problems develop in one year."
TOO AFRAID TO FLEX?
Even when healthy, the 'Bows have received criticism during the Nash era for a "boring" style of play.
Nash, who was Wallace's top associate coach for 20 years, has continued to run a version of the flex-motion offense that Wallace liked to use.
That offense has sputtered often in the past three seasons.
"It's a power offense; you need guys who are not afraid to go in there and bang and set good screens," Wallace said. "When I watched them (in December), I didn't see that in them. It was like they were running the plays, but I didn't recognize it."
The 'Bows finished with a .424 team field goal percentage last season, and .430 this season. The last time a Hawai'i team finished with a lower percentage was 1986, when Frank Arnold was head coach.
"I know Bob can coach," Wallace said. "When you start out in a hole like he did, it's tough to get out sometimes."
REWARDS CAME OFF COURT
During his three seasons as head coach, Nash has had 12 seniors on his rosters, including five this season.
Eight have already graduated from UH, and the other four are on pace to graduate before the end of 2010.
"That's been the most rewarding thing for me — every guy that has come into the program has graduated so far," Nash said.
Some of the current 'Bows credit Nash and his staff for keeping them on track for a college degree.
"People are going to criticize his ways and how we're doing on the court," senior center Paul Campbell said. "But what people don't see is how much he does for us off the court. He's a great person and he's doing the best he can to make this program the best it can be in all areas."
Senior forward Adhar Mayen added: "We hear all the stuff being said about Coach, but he doesn't let it affect him or the team. He's the same person he was when I first met him. He wants the best for everybody in this program, not just on the court, but off the court. You have to respect him for that."
Junior point guard Hiram Thompson said he wants to play for Nash next season.
"I don't want to see a change," Thompson said. "I know this has been a tough year, but me, personally, I love Coach Nash and the way he treats us. I'm by his side."
Even longtime fans — while remaining loyal to Nash — understand the gravity of the situation.
"Bob Nash has done so much for basketball in Hawai'i," said Steve Goodenow, a season-ticket holder since the late 1960s. "He's striving to have great academic records for the team, which is great. Obviously, athletics is not just about winning and losing, it's about developing great student-athletes who represent the university well, and Bob Nash has done an outstanding job in that department.
"But, in these times, it's also about pulling your fair share when it comes to revenues, especially in men's basketball. That's what makes it a difficult decision."
While attendance in the Sheriff Center has dwindled during the Nash era, enrollment in the men's basketball booster club has gone up. According to booster club president Tom Ishii, enrollment increased from 90 to 117 during Nash's tenure.
"I think that shows what kind of support Coach Nash has," Ishii said. "Nobody is happy about losing and being in last place. But there are boosters who are going to show up and support the team no matter what, as long as Bob Nash is the coach.
"What is most concerning is whether the regular season-ticket holders will continue to support the program if Bob Nash is still the coach ... in Hawai'i, you have to win to get the fans to come out, and right now the team is not winning."
Many of the booster club members have fond memories of Nash as a player from the incomparable "Fabulous Five" teams.
"This is a big decision to make," Goodenow said. "But it's a hard decision because it's Bob Nash."
Utah State head coach Stew Morrill has followed the debate about whether Nash should be retained and said three years isn't long enough to evaluate the tenure.
"Three years, are you kidding me?" Morrill said. "It just amazes me in college basketball how impatient anybody is any more. Bob is a good coach and, hopefully, the powers to be know that."
Morrill has a 5-1 record against Nash.
Last month Donovan commended Nash, saying, "Bob Nash is an outstanding man; you can't find someone out there that has better character than he does ... a lot of things outside of win/loss Bob has done a very good job on. But win/loss is also a very important component of the success of a coach."