Kalani Simpson


By Kalani Simpson

Friday, June 28, 2002

rolls along

When he first thrust himself on the sports scene (and many times since), I thought Hawaii president Evan Dobelle was some kind of nut. He didn't just step on toes in the Fresno State ticket-refund fiasco, he showed up with a bulldozer. He said crazy things ("join the Pac-10!"). He dressed like Al Davis.

But in the year that he's been in office, it's become apparent that Dobelle is crazy like a fox. The bluster and buzzwords, his far-out fantasies and crazy ideas only distract you from the fact that he's smoother and smarter than even many of his biggest cheerleaders realize. In a year, he's turned me around.

He's a sports fan. Many people claim to be sports fans, especially university presidents. It's just good politics. But he proved it for sure on the night of a high-class function, a great chance to be seen and heard. He could have moved and shook, schmoozed and boozed, sat down to dinner and been a big winner (help me, I can't stop!), but instead he left early, a decision that might have ruffled a few people. They could have taken it the wrong way, but he didn't care.

He had to go to a UH-Hilo basketball game.

First, this showed me he's serious about being president of the entire university system. Second, anybody who leaves a fancy dinner for some NCAA Division II hoops is definitely a sports fan. Get some help, man!

Then, there was the story.

Somehow I found myself in a conversation with two important people, and me. Well, when Dobelle found out that Joe Ornellas was an official, the president had to tell us about his days as a basketball referee. One night, he told us, the game was tense and the competition was fierce and the end was agonizingly close. And afterward, a fan came out of the stands to confront Dobelle and let him know exactly how she felt about his interpretation of the three-second rule.

Before he knew it, the woman hit him in the head with a bell. DING!

This makes him quite possibly the only university president in the country to have been assaulted by a musical instrument during a sports riot. Big points here.

Of course, then there was the "Dobelle Bowl," a last-second attempt to get an extra regular season, postseason game for Hawaii's football team after the 72-45 trouncing of BYU. At the time, I was highly critical. This made no sense. It was never going to happen. I thought it was much ado about nothing, a big show, a big sham, a wild goose chase, a big waste of time.

It was never going to happen.

(Yes, people may tell you that it might have happened, that it could have happened, but since it didn't happen, I say I was right.)

But upon further review, we have seen that even if it was impossible, even if it was never going to happen, it wasn't a waste of time. No, in fact it was a brilliant plan. It was like the movie "Animal House," in which John Belushi prods his friends into action by saying, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!"

And the people who knew better looked at each other: "Germans?"

"Forget it, he's rolling."

Dobelle was rolling.

The point of the "Animal House" example is not whether Brother Bluto had his facts straight -- we in Hawaii, tragically, know most of all that he didn't. What mattered was when Belushi ran out of the room yelling incoherently, the guys followed him, bought 10,000 marbles, hijacked a marching band, drove the "Deathmobile" out of a giant cake, and put together the greatest ending in cinematic history.

Here, while I was saying "Germans?", Dobelle ran out of the room and people followed him. ESPN took notice. And a year later, Dobelle will have his bowl.

Not bad.

Now came the athletics director decision, and this was the smoothest move, the ultimate Dobelle coup. If he had never heard of Herman Frazier, this was exactly the man Dobelle wanted to be a "global athletics director." And he got him. Before most of us really knew what was happening, Dobelle already had his man.

Big. Because with the Alabama-Birmingham business, because of the Olympics emphasis, Frazier was not the conventional candidate. People wanted a local name. A reader writes, "I, as of this date, will no longer be a UH fan," over this.

(Just a side note here: Of COURSE it was going to be an outsider.)

To some, there would have been obstacles to bringing in the kind of guy the new administration wanted.

But we were distracted by a list of candidates that was kept more secret than the colonel's chicken recipe. We were distracted by a search committee with a cast of thousands. We were distracted by all the dots that dropped to spell out Dick Tomey as a front-runner.

Meanwhile, a professional search firm was identifying, interviewing, wooing a man who fit Dobelle's profile perfectly. And before anyone can object, you've already introduced "a true American hero."

Love him or hate him -- and this global Asia business sounds like more crazy stuff to me -- I have to admire Dobelle's unorthodox style of getting things done.

It sure is fun to watch him drive that Deathmobile, burning rubber through the parade route, scattering everything in his path.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at

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