Two years after the College of Hawaiʻi was founded, players took to the football field for the first time, defeating McKinley High School 6–5 before 2,500 fans at Oʻahu College (now Punahou School) in 1909. For the next seven seasons, the “Fighting Deans” played high school, club and military teams.
Since then, the opponents and fields of battle have changed as dramatically as the uniforms, and the team’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed under the influence of war, economics and public support.
The Mānoa athletics department invites the public to help celebrate the football centennial this fall. It will be the focus of this year’s Murphy’s Pigskin Pigout, scheduled Aug. 20, as well as a celebration event to be scheduled. Watch the UH athletics website for information.
Mālamalama offers this condensed history, adapted from the Warrior Football Media Guide.
Raymond Elliot coached the University of Hawaiʻi’s first intercollegiate game against the University of Nevada (Reno) in 1920, a 14–0 Christmas Day loss at Moʻiliʻili Field.
The next year brought Otto “Proc” Klum and the beginning of the “golden age of UH Football.” As head coach and athletics director until 1939, the “Mānoa Fox” compiled an 84–51–7 record. Highlights included UH’s first victory over a collegiate opponent, the 25–6 1922 Christmas Day triumph over Pomona College at Punahou’s Alexander Field and the team’s first “road” trip—via ocean liner—to play Pomona at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in 1923.
In the final game of that season, a rainbow appeared over the gridiron late in the game against Oregon State. The Deans scored shortly thereafter and held on to win, 7–0 and reporters started calling UH teams the “Rainbows.”
Whenever a rainbow appeared from the Mānoa mist over the UH campus, it was said, Hawaiʻi could not lose.
Under Klum’s guidance, Hawaiʻi produced the “Wonder Teams,” which went undefeated in 1924 and 1925, outscoring their opponents, 606–29 in 18 games. The Rainbows defeated Colorado, Colorado State and finally Washington State—the only team to score more than six points against UH—20–11 on New Year’s Day, 1926. (The 2009 Warriors play the Cougars Sept. 12 in Seattle.)
Among the Wonder Team stars were the famed “Four Horsemen of Mānoa,” Bill “Doggie” Wise, Johnny Morse, Eddie Fernandez and Theodore “Pump” Searle.
The Grass Shack and a world war
In 1926, newly built Honolulu Stadium, a 24,000-seat facility in Moʻiliʻili became the Rainbow’s homefield. In a 101–0 score win over Healani that season, halfback Fernandez had one of the best single-game performances in UH history, scoring six times on runs, punts and an interception.
Four years later, UH played its first night game at the stadium, defeating the Honolulu Athletic Club 28–0 before 9,500 fans.
A member of UH’s undefeated 1934 team, 5-foot-5, 140-pound back Thomas Kaulukukui of Hilo helped lead the Rainbows to a 14–0 shutout of California in the New Year’s Day Classic (later renamed the Poi Bowl).
The next year, Kaulukukui was nicknamed the “Grass Shack” by legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice and became UH’s first All-American. His 103-yard kickoff return during a 19–6 loss to UCLA at the Los Angeles Coliseum remains a record.
On the morning after the Rainbows defeated Willamette in front of a sold-out Honolulu Stadium crowd of 24,000, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Football was on hold through the 1945 season.
UH returned to the gridiron in 1946 and entered the NCAA under head coach Kaulukukui. Hawaiʻi finished the season 8–2, culminating in a 19–16 victory over Utah in the Pineapple Bowl.
The team began to travel by air, making the journey to the West Coast in an unheard-of nine hours. To cut down on costs, teams stayed on the U.S. mainland for at least two weeks at a time.
Following the 1949 season, Harry “Clown” Kahuanui became the first UH player to be invited to the East-West Shrine Game and was named an honorable mention All-American by United Press International.
Kaulukukui coached until 1951, accumulating a record of 34–18–3. He was chosen as a charter member of the National Football Hall of Fame Association.
Ups and downs
Maui native Hank Vasconcellos coached the Rainbows through nine seasons and some of the program’s highest and lowest moments.
1954 ended with a humbling 50–0 loss to Orange Bowl-bound Nebraska in front of a crowd of 20,000 fans at Honolulu Stadium. In the rematch the next season, the 40-point underdog Rainbows defeated the Cornhuskers (and 95-degree heat and 26 mile-per-hour winds) before a crowd of 23,000 at Nebraska Stadium.
Six years later, the UH Board of Athletic Control, made up of faculty, student and alumni members, voted to abolish the football program due to lack of finances.
Football returned to intercollegiate competition in 1962 at the urging of new Athletics Director Young Suk Ko. The program went through five coaches that decade, including former player Jim Asato and offensive guru Clark Shaughnessy, who led Stanford to a Rose Bowl victory. Phil Sarboe coached UH’s first all-collegiate seaon in 1966, and then bolted for northern California. His top assistant, Don King coached a 6-4 season, and then quit.
Success and turmoil
In six years as head coach, Dave Holmes guided his teams to a 46–17–1 record. He still ranks as the all-time leader in UH winning percentage (.718). He coached Hawaiʻi to a 10–7 road victory over 50-point Pac-8 favorite Washington in 1973 and a No. 5 ranking in the Division II poll. But following that season, Holmes resigned due to team turmoil.
Former player and assistant coach Larry Price became head coach for the next three years. During his tenure, UH became an NCAA Division I member, changed its nickname to the Rainbow Warriors, introduced the Hula-T formation and on Sept. 13, 1975, christened the newly-built 50,000-seat Aloha Stadium (losing to Texas A&I, 43–9, before 32,247 fans).
Dick Tomey, a UCLA assistant was hired to replace Price in 1977. During his 10-year tenure, he guided Hawaiʻi into the Western Athletic Conference, drastically upgrading the schedule by playing the likes of Nebraska, Oklahoma, USC, Iowa and Michigan.
Highlights including a heart-breaking 13–12 loss to Brigham Young, which went on the win the national championship, in 1984, and selection of defensive end Al Noga as UH’s first Associated Press first team All-American 1986.
Wags and triple options
After Tomey left UH for Arizona, assistant Bob Wagner took over. His spread offense or “triple option,” which featured two slotbacks and one fullback, frequently placed UH among the top rushing teams in the country.
The Rainbow Warriors shocked the Iowa Hawkeyes, 27–24, behind running back Heikoti Fakava’s three touchdowns in 1988. After just two seasons, Wagner was named WAC Coach of the Year; led the Rainbow Warriors to their first major bowl game, the Jeep Eagle Aloha Bowl; and became the first UH coach to head an all-star team in the Hula Bowl.
In 1992, behind quarterback Michael Carter, Hawaiʻi posted its first bowl game victory, defeat of Illinois 27–17 in the Thrifty Car Rental Holiday Bowl. UH finished the season ranked No. 20. Three-time All-American kicker Jason Elam was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the third round.
During Wagner’s nine seasons as head coach, Hawaiʻi defeated nationally ranked rival Brigham Young three times and Carter became one of a handful of NCAA Division I quarterbacks to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in the same season.
Disappointment and hope
Wagner was fired following consecutive losing seasons, replaced by former San Francisco 49ers assistant coach Fred vonAppen in 1996. During his three seasons, the Rainbow Warriors posted a 5–31 record and suffered their first 0-12 campaign.
June Jones restored pride, bringing his explosive run-and-shoot offense from the NFL. His 9–4 record in 1999 was the best by a first-year UH head coach. The Warriors finished the season as WAC co-champions and defeated Oregon State, 23–17, in the Jeep Oahu Bowl.
In 2001 the Warriors handed Brigham Young a 72–45 defeat on national TV and finished 9–3, but was snubbed for a bowl game. Wide receiver Ashley Lelie became the school’s first first-round draftee, selected by the Denver Broncos.
Jones led the Warriors to bowl games over the next three seasons and the school’s first top-25 ranking since 1993. Quarterback Timmy Chang became the NCAA all-time passing leader with 17,072 yards in 2004, and Colt Brennan set 19 NCAA records and won the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation’s top quarterback in 2006.
The 2007 team went undefeated for a 12–0 regular season, captured the program’s first outright WAC championship and fell to third-ranked Georgia in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Heisman contender Brennan was drafted in the sixth round by the Washington Redskins.
Jones departed for Southern Methodist University and was replaced by defensive coordinator Greg McMackin, who guided the 2008 Warriors to 7–6 regular season (against perhaps the most difficult schedule in school history) and 49–21 loss to Notre Dame in the Sheraton Hawaiʻi Bowl.
The Warriors open the 2009 season Sept. 4 against Central Arkansas. See the schedule at the athletics website.