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Nagel gave UH 'a Division I mentality'


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POSTED: Sunday, January 25, 2009

Those were some hard economic times in the early 1980s. If you're too young or old to remember, rent “;Miracle”; and get a gander at those long gas lines. (As a bonus, you'll hear a really cool song, “;Thunder Island.”;)

The economy isn't so great now, either, as a look at my 401(k) quarterly report serves to remind. I try to tell myself I'm fortunate to have any kind of retirement plan, not to mention health insurance and a job, period.

The scary part is we've been told to prepare for worse before better. The experts say the recession is going to hit nearly every aspect of our lives it hasn't already, including sports.

Just ask Hawaii athletic director Jim Donovan. Where is he going to find the money to continue putting on these events that fewer people are paying to attend? How will he buy out these losing coaches so many fans want him to get rid of? As displayed in the departure of his predecessor, Herman Frazier, it costs a lot to fire somebody these days.

So maybe this is perfect timing to honor Ray Nagel, who was the athletic director from 1976 to 1983. He is among UH's newest Circle of Honor class, inducted last night with volleyball standouts Heather Bown and Clay Stanley and multi-sport star and World War II hero Jack Johnson.

All worthy, but Nagel resonates because of economic parallels of now and 30 years ago. Donovan might do well to get a look at his old playbook, since football home crowds were huge during his tenure (maybe because there was no pay-per-view?)

Nagel not only steered the ship past numerous obstacles but to new and bountiful lands of opportunity. His biggest accomplishment was getting UH into the Western Athletic Conference—not the easiest sell in the world considering geography and that the basketball program had run afoul of the NCAA just a couple of years earlier.

Now, you may be among the fans who believe this is no big deal, and that the WAC is an inferior conference.

If so, ask yourself this: Inferior to what? The SEC, Pac-10 and other BCS behemoths? OK, point taken.

But the WAC is still Division I, and UH might not have survived as an independent (for which I was an advocate at one point, and then I thought about it for 7 seconds). The WAC has its problems, but think about what would not have happened for UH if Nagel and others hadn't succeeded in attaining membership.

For one, no Sugar Bowl. No Holiday Bowl in 1992. No national rankings. Colt Brennan might have still ended up here (assuming there was still a football team playing at some level), but he could've thrown for a zillion yards and not been a Heisman finalist. Think it's difficult to get recognition in the WAC? It's a lot harder in the Big Sky.

“;Ray saw something in our state and university. He felt we belonged,”; says volleyball coach Dave Shoji, who was there. “;He gave us a Division I mentality. He knew Division I athletics. Ray was instrumental in us being able to climb into the big time.”;

It might not be what some of you consider the big time, but it's a lot better than the real alternatives.

Donovan may need a miracle akin to that of the 1980 USA hockey team just to keep things afloat. But at least he knows Nagel pulled one off during trying times.