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Full-Court Press

By Paul Arnett

Friday, May 12, 2000

Time to right
Mortimer’s wrongs

NOW that University of Hawaii President Ken Mortimer removed himself from the playing field, one wonders what changes will take place in an athletic department that already stumbled in the dark for too long.

After Mortimer was hired in 1992, a friend wrote from Western Washington that Dr. Mortimer didn't really grasp athletics at the NAIA level. He couldn't imagine him running a Division I program.

Unfortunately for Mortimer, athletic director Stan Sheriff died early in the UH president's tenure. Sheriff's steady hand guided the Rainbows' program to national prominence in football, basketball, volleyball and baseball.

The football team not only shared in a Western Athletic Conference title in 1992, it also won the Holiday Bowl and finished in the top 20 nationally as well.

But the salad days didn't last too long. With Sheriff's death in 1993 and an economy that went south forever, the challenges facing the athletic department were beyond Mortimer's control.

New athletic director Hugh Yoshida found out early on that when the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers. He may have always dreamed of being athletic director, but his inexperience directly contributed to a nose dive that plagues the Rainbows even today.

Mortimer further contributed to Hawaii's demise by casting the deciding vote for the WAC to expand to an ill-fated 16 teams. Eventually, the better eight figured out they had to dump the rest in order to survive.

Instead of viewing this business decision for what it was, Mortimer took it personally. He refused to allow Yoshida to schedule BYU, UNLV and San Diego State, not realizing these economic ties were critical to UH's success.

BYU always drew a big crowd. The Boyd Group contributed major dollars to the program. And the Aztecs provided local fans the opportunity to see future NFL greats Marshall Faulk, Darnay Scott and Az-Hakim.

REPLACING them on the schedule with the likes of Arkansas State, Northeast Louisiana and Rice University didn't exactly have people lining up at the windows to buy season tickets.

Mortimer likened these rivalry changes to finding a new squash player to whip, not realizing most folks think of squash as something to eat. Even after the Fred vonAppen debacle, Mortimer came out and said there was no way UH would pay a coach $400,000 a year. Wrong again.

Even with a pocketful of miracles last season, you could see how far the program fell by how few fans were in the stands. The Rainbows did more than even their head coach imagined by producing the greatest turnaround in NCAA history.

But instead of crashing the gates to see these revived Rainbows, an alarming number of fans stayed away right through the Oahu Bowl.

Head coach June Jones kept harking back to the good-old days, believing a season like this would make an Aloha Stadium ticket the hottest in town.

What he didn't realize is that many fans learned to live without the Rainbows, and getting them back will prove more difficult than UH officials ever expected.

With Mortimer leaving, perhaps it would behoove Hawaii to renew old friendships with certain members of the Mountain West. Severing ties was a major mistake that needs correcting before it's too late to matter.

Paul Arnett has been covering sports
for the Star-Bulletin since 1990.

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