Tuesday, December 1, 1998

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Amid the crush of the media in Bachman Hall yesterday,
University of Hawaii President Kenneth Mortimer expounds
on the firing of Rainbow head football coach Fred vonAppen
on Monday. Below inset, vonAppen after his loss
to Michigan Saturday.

What now?

The UH football program finds itself
in much the same position it was in
before hiring vonAppen three years ago,
even considering many of the same
candidates for head coach

'Plenty of blame'

By Paul Arnett


The direction that the University of Hawaii athletic program wants to take remains as unclear today as it was three years ago.

In 1995, former Rainbows head coach Bob Wagner was fired for failing to field an entertaining product. Sagging sales of season tickets was cited as the chief reason he was let go.

At the time, athletic director Hugh Yoshida said he wanted to take the program to the next level, and he believed former college teammate Fred vonAppen was the man to get the Rainbows to the elusive promised land.

But with the longtime assistant having failed to accomplish the task in three tumultuous seasons, Yoshida and UH president Ken Mortimer return to a drawing board that is strikingly similar to the one they faced in 1995.

"The decision was made for what's right for the program," Yoshida said of buying out the last two years of vonAppen's contract, worth about $263,000.

"It was one where we needed to look at all assets in regards to where we want to go as far as the program is concerned and I think these issues were discussed. It's water under the bridge. The decision was made and I think we need to move forward."

Questions for the sixth-year athletic director concerning what moving forward meant and how those ideas fit into the hiring of a new coach revealed that no plan is in place.

"Those are the things that have not been discussed," Yoshida said. "I'll sit down with President Mortimer and we'll chart a course as far as the program is concerned, and we'll have some recommendations forthcoming."

When told of Yoshida's comments about an hour after the press conference was completed, vonAppen smiled, made a small steeple with his index fingers pressed to the bridge of his nose and looked up again before making a comment.

"Part of the problem was the vision matched the commitment," vonAppen said. "You can talk about it and dream about it, but it takes major dollars to effect an actual change.

"You don't just hire a coach and tell him to go out there and win. It doesn't work that way. We failed to get this thing turned around. A big part of that was my responsibility. I accept that.

"But this program has to decide whether it wants to be a Division I football program. If not, then drop football and concentrate on being a good volleyball or basketball school."

Mortimer isn't ready to bring down the curtain on Division I football. Not only has he been heavily involved in the athletic department's problems, he also has been forced to deal with the reality of $50 million being cut from his overall budget the last five years.

As Mortimer has said many times, the athletic department can no longer depend on the kindness of the state legislature.

"No, I don't think this program is in peril," Mortimer said. "I think we have some hard times. If I were in a position to say it doesn't matter what tickets sales are, I will dig in my deep pockets and give you the extra bucks, then we might be talking about different things. But the athletic department has to generate most, not all, of its own funds."

Just how it does that beyond the sales of season tickets also has not been addressed to its fullest, at least in the eyes of vonAppen.

"We waited too long to get a fund-raiser in place," vonAppen said. "At our latest fund-raiser we made about $100,000, and that's fine.

"But that's not nearly enough to fund a football program properly. Most schools don't rely solely on season-ticket sales because it's such an iffy proposition.

"The fund-raising takes away the pressure of selling out every seat for every game. You have enough money raised to cover the costs and whatever you make at the gate is icing on the cake. Nobody has figured that out yet."

Mortimer did concede that the next head coach would need a five-year contract at a higher salary. Former Hawaii head coach Dick Tomey just signed a five-year, $2.5 million deal at Arizona.

But that won't happen here, which will narrow the field of possible applicants. Many of the same names floating around three years ago -- Arizona assistant Duane Akina, Brigham Young University assistant Norm Chow, St. Louis School head coach Cal Lee and Navy assistant Kenny Niumatalolo -- have been mentioned once more.

Chow and Yoshida are not on friendly terms. In fact, the BYU assistant said yesterday that his last interview probably precludes him from being considered again.

"I asked too many questions," Chow said yesterday, "the kind vonAppen wishes he had asked."

June Jones, a former UH player and assistant coach under Tomey, is always a popular choice. He has said he would like to coach here after he has made his money in the NFL. But he could receive an offer from the San Diego Chargers to be the permanent head coach in as little as two weeks.

"I probably wouldn't entertain an offer from Hawaii at this time," Jones said last night. If an offer came his way from San Diego, it would be worth about $800,000 a year.

"If the timing were different, maybe I would consider it," said Jones, who still has two years remaining on his contract to be the quarterbacks coach for the Chargers. "But it's kind of bad timing right now."

Such is not the case for Utah offensive coordinator Tommy Lee. While he wouldn't do anything to hurt Cal's chances, the oldest Lee brother might be better suited for the job.

"Tommy would be a strong candidate," Utah head coach Ron McBride said yesterday. "He's well-respected and a great recruiter over there.

"People really like him and they need to have a guy who understands what's going on over there. They need somebody to understand the mentality of the place and relate to what's going on."

Tommy Lee landed in Hawaii last night for a four-day recruiting trip. He told the Star-Bulletin at Honolulu Airport that he would definitely be interested in the job.

"If somebody wanted to talk to me, I would listen," Lee said. "I think I know what it takes to put a winner on the field here, but it's very premature. Nobody has even contacted me."

Although Yoshida said it has not been decided how the new coach will be hired, it's believed that a search committee will be in place in several days and that a new coach would be selected in two weeks.

"Whatever process we use, we need to get this done, so a new coach can be in place in time for recruiting," Yoshida said.

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