Monday, March 29, 1999
Star-Bulletin file photo
June Jones left the NFL to come to Hawaii and
inherit a team whose first goal is to break its
NCAA-worst 18-game losing streak.
New head coach June JonesBy Paul Arnett
opens spring practice confident
that he can turn around
the reeling program
What was June Jones thinking?
Here he was, the interim head coach of the San Diego Chargers on the verge of signing a $3 million deal that would have made the NFL job a permanent one.
Not that far removed from a Super Bowl, the Chargers were committed in reaching that plateau once more. They already have one of the best defenses in the league, a young-gun quarterback about to be tutored by Jim Harbaugh and a general manager in Bobby Beathard, who knows what it's like to have a championship season.
Granted, San Diego isn't Honolulu. The true aloha spirit is found in only one place. But the Southern California city is close enough -- with its laid-back lifestyle and picture-perfect setting -- to be a DNA match. Flip a coin and you can't lose.
Many would counter that Jones did lose, calling, "Heads." And it was tails, banishing him to a football program that's Division I in name only. A starting point for some and a finish line for others, there's no arguing that the head coaching job in Hawaii isn't an enviable position.
"If you have to explain why I would take this job to somebody, chances are, they won't understand," Jones said as he prepares for his first spring practice this afternoon at Cooke Field. "I am confident that we can get this program turned around.
"To do that, we have to believe in ourselves as a team. We have to get our community behind this thing and we have to convince local athletes that staying home should be an option. We also have to get people back into Aloha Stadium and give them an entertaining product."
At this point, the program lays in financial ruin. Season-ticket sales have plummeted 10,000 since 1991. At today's prices, that's a loss of $150,000 times nine. Operating at that kind of deficit can continue for only two or three more years before somebody comes along and pulls the plug.
Hawaii also finds itself on the wrong side of the Western Athletic Conference fence. The recent split left the Rainbows in a league that can't survive for more than two years as it is, giving Hawaii few options should nationwide realignment take place.
If that's not bad enough, the Rainbows have the nation's longest losing streak at 18 games. They haven't won a road game in the WAC since 1992 and it has been four years since their last road victory at Nevada-Las Vegas.
Former UH head coach Fred vonAppen couldn't have envisioned contributing so much to those confidence-shaking losing streaks. Three years ago, he occupied the same office Jones now calls his home away from home.
Like Jones, vonAppen was the savior of the month. He entered spring practice with a promising West Coast offense and a punishing Don Lindsey defense that had been successful wherever he went.
Substitute the West Coast with the run-and-shoot, and Lindsey with fellow defensive wizard Greg McMackin, and the similarities between now and then are startling.
Jones has been nearly everywhere and back again, moving from town to town like some trouble-shooting businessman. Some stops have been more successful than others, but for the most part, Jones was embraced by the players and respected by the owners.
While the run-and-shoot, in its purest form, has disappeared from the landscape, off-shoots are still in most NFL playbooks. Anytime you see four-and five-wide, think of Jones.
Just how long it will take the Hawaii coach to get his principles in place here is anyone's guess. But his transition shouldn't be as difficult as vonAppen's. Senior quarterback Dan Robinson is a better fit for the run-and-shoot than option man Glenn Freitas was for the West Coast.
The Rainbows also have several young prospects at receiver
and a stable of offensive linemen much more familiar with pass-blocking than the 1995 team.
Among the eight starters returning on offense are linemen Adrian Klemm and Kaulana Noa. The two top tackles are a good starting point to protect Robinson in the pocket and on the perimeter. Since there is only one running back, look for some at that position to try out for the slotbacks. Dwight Carter is the top returning receiver.
The defensive unit also returns eight starters. Chief among them are injured linemen Tony Tuioti, linebackers Jeff Ulbrich and Matt Paul, and defensive backs Quincy LeJay, Nate Jackson, Anthony Smith and Phil Austin.
Just two years ago, many in this group were a part of a unit ranked 20th nationally in total defense. Part of last year's dramatic drop was from moving Lindsey from defense to offense, but injuries also took their toll.
McMackin welcomes a good core of defenders to today's first workout. The Rainbows are still deep enough at linebacker and quick off the edge to make McMackin's defensive ideals jump off the playbook's pages.
"We're going to spend this spring getting familiar with what we want to do this fall," McMackin said. "I like the challenge we have. I enjoy going to places and helping turn around programs.
"When I joined (Ron McBride) in Utah in 1990, they were last in the nation in every major category. In two years, we were one of the best defensive teams in the WAC. We can do it here, too."
Jones is equally confident his offensive schemes will find a home. It's going to take some time to make it work. But Jones and offensive coordinator Wes Suan believe in the system.
"If you can throw the ball, you always have a chance to win," Suan said. "This is an offense that's fun to watch and difficult to defend because teams don't see it that often.
"It's going to take some time, but I believe in Coach Jones. I've seen what he can do. I know the players are going to believe in him the more they're around him. We just have to get them to believe in themselves."
And, as Hamlet would say, "There's the rub."
Jones is confident he can win over the long haul. But he also knows that time will be a factor. It puts pressure on him, especially if the Board of Regents approves a new season-ticket price package for the year 2000.
Fans will be asked to pay more. That means Jones will be asked to produce a viable product -- and sooner, rather than later.
"I don't really think about what kind of pressure has been placed on me," Jones said. "I know we can win here, but it's not going to happen tomorrow.
"There's a lot to be accomplished. What we're going to try to do this spring is get the veterans familiar with our offensive and defensive schemes. This is not a bad group, so I feel like we can make an impact right away."