Warriors and fans collect their long-awaited Sugar rush
HawaII is playing Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day.
Oh, I hear you. I didn't believe it at first, either. But they said it on television, so it must be true. The undefeated Warriors are facing the twice-beaten Bulldogs at the Superdome, the symbol of Hurricane Katrina, on the first day of 2008.
For people who have been around this program since Hawaii was invited into the WAC in 1979 and those who can remember the first time the Rainbows played an all-collegiate schedule or beat Nebraska 6-0 in 1955, this is a day they never saw coming.
Seconds after the final quarter ended in Saturday night's last Division I game of the 2007 regular season, longtime UH assistant George Lumpkin walked across Aloha Stadium for the umpteenth time to shake hands with his counterparts.
Fans and players were streaking past him like he was in another dimension and the tranquil, bemused expression on his face belied the feelings he had boiling over inside. This is a man who began his association with the program in 1970 as a player and has been the defensive coordinator on two different occasions in his 35 years serving as an assistant to five different head coaches.
When June Jones took the job nine years ago, Lumpkin was the first man he called to join a crusade that took a team from 0-12 in 1998 to 12-0 nearly a decade later. Not a man of many words, Lumpkin paused to reflect a moment when asked how he felt after the dramatic 35-28 win over Washington.
"It feels outstanding, what a relief," Lumpkin said. "We know God has had his hand on this team from the beginning. I believe this team is special."
THAT'S A WORD the coaches and players have used to describe themselves since the opening day of the season. And it's hard to argue the premise, especially after watching the heart-warming scene at the Stan Sheriff Center when Jones got the call. He and senior quarterback Colt Brennan were the opening act of the BCS show on Fox and said all the right things about this game being for the state of Hawaii.
Known as much for the players who have left their home behind to compete at marquee schools on the mainland, there's no arguing the talent the 50th state produces. Convincing them to stay home was another matter. Play in the Pac-10 and you have a chance for the Rose Bowl. Go to the Southeastern Conference and the Sugar Bowl awaits.
Now, coaches like Lumpkin can go into a local recruit's home and say, "If you come play for us, you can lead us back to the BCS promised land." It's a game like this that can turn around the fate of a mid-level program like the Warriors. And who can you thank for this amazing journey? That's easy. Each player and coach on the team.
Each had a role in this 12-0 season -- from Gerard Lewis' pass breakup on the try for 2 at LaTech right through to the game-ending interception by Ryan Mouton on Saturday night. To see the excitement in the eyes of the players and coaches yesterday afternoon at the Stan Sheriff Center is a reflection of the fans across the state who have waited so long for this moment in time.
Sports Editor Paul Arnett
has been covering sports for the Star-Bulletin since 1990. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org