Kalani Simpson


By Kalani Simpson

ESPN gambles on
Hawaii for bowl game

Now we know what faith looks like.

Yesterday, in the room with the tall doors and the koa desk and the imposing portraits, yesterday in the Governor's office, we saw real University of Hawaii football fans.

You think you'll cheer for the UH football team next season?

Not as much as ESPN Regional Television will.

Yesterday's Hawaii Bowl press conference made it very clear that everyone involved in the Dec. 25 postseason bonanza is involved based on the premise that UH is in this game.

If UH is bowl-eligible, it is in. And that means sellouts and ratings and success and bowl survival.

And everyone has already penciled in all of the above.

They want Hawaii in this game. They need Hawaii in this game. They already have Hawaii in this game.

"We know that under coach June Jones' leadership that it won't be just any WAC team participating in the bowl each year, that it will be the UH Warriors," said UH general counsel Walter Kirimitsu.

"The message that we would like to leave with you today is that it is indeed your game," ESPN Regional senior vice president Pete Derzis said, looking squarely into the cameras and at Hawaii fans. "The opportunity in our WAC contract provides a great platform for Coach Jones."

"I had dinner with Coach Jones last night," said Conference USA commissioner Mike Slive. "After hearing about his football team, I'm not sure I can get one of our teams to come out here."

Does it matter? Officially, the Hawaii Bowl is a matchup between Conference USA and the WAC. But yesterday's festivities made it clear that the two players that matter most are Hawaii and ESPN.

ESPN loves Hawaii. Now. ESPN saw that BYU game and liked what it saw. "As you all know, that particular game, that was the highest-rated collegiate football game ever seen on ESPN2," UH athletic director Hugh Yoshida reminded us.

ESPN knows it. ESPN loves the ratings, the scoring, the location, the date. These guys are no dummies. Hawaii on Christmas Day with the home team filling the stands. "Obviously, it's a common sense approach," Derzis said of using UH as the host school. "We do this all over the country."

And so UH is perhaps even more of a partner than the two conferences. If UH is bowl eligible, it is in -- on paper, in writing, guaranteed. Even if Hawaii were to leave the WAC, Derzis indicated, something could be worked out, UH could still play in the game. It was built around Hawaii. The rest is just filling in the blanks.

The only one who showed any restraint was Jones, who used the word "hopefully" in his public address. Later, asked point blank if he knew his team would actually be in this bowl seven months from now, he replied, point blank, as only Jones can, "No."

But ESPN thinks it will be, the WAC thinks it will be, the NCAA obviously thinks it will be. It's why they all think this game will work in the first place. Everyone is banking that Hawaii will have another season like its last one, another game like its last one.

They're rooting for it, they're counting on it, they've already written it down.

"Ultimately, that's the gamble that ESPN is taking," said Jones. And then he added a Jones-ism, one of his favorites: "For anything to be special, you've got to roll the dice."

ESPN is rolling them, everyone is, betting on Hawaii, betting on Jones. Derzis did address the possibility of UH having a down year, of missing the bowl, and he said, "God forbid," and the cracking of his voice said he meant it.

"I think if UH is in the game, it will be a very healthy crowd on hand," he said later. "If UH is not in the game, we hope we have a very acceptable crowd on hand."

Acceptable enough, he hopes, to certify the game again, to sustain it until a Hawaii team fills the stands again.

And all this was based on a Hawaii team doing just that.

This is what faith looks like. ESPN and everyone else built a bowl game around UH. Now, the pressure is on.

"Expectations don't scare me," Jones said.

No, not him. But all these people have gambled on another winning season, are expecting more Fresno, and BYU. After all that was said yesterday, it seems that the success of this new bowl will have to ride on Hawaii's.

"Maybe we did overstate the Hawaii thing," Derzis said upon final reflection, when asked if all this were really the case. But then, "It makes life easier if they're bowl-eligible," the newest Hawaii football fan said.

It certainly does.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at

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