Hula Bowl trying
to hold off ‘Aloha’

A loss of star power has hurt
attendance and endangered
the college all-star game on Maui

Hula Bowl Maui

Who: East vs. West

Where: War Memorial Stadium in Wailuku

When: 2 p.m. today

TV: ESPN2 (subject to blackout on Maui)

WAILUKU » San Jose State offensive tackle William Obeng was mistaken for Ricky Williams at a Kihei eatery Monday.

That's kind of funny, considering Obeng is 6-feet-6 and 307 pounds -- which, we presume, is still much larger than the former Texas Longhorns and Miami Dolphins running back.

That's also kind of sad, because the anecdote shared by Obeng's agent, Wynn Silberman, brought back memories of brighter days for the Hula Bowl Maui. Williams was one of the few Heisman Trophy winners to play in the venerable college all-star game since it moved to the Valley Isle, and he picked up an MVP trophy after displaying his considerable talent in the 1999 game.

Now, Williams doesn't play football, and this could be the last Hula Bowl for Maui -- and the state of Hawaii.

If there are too many empty seats at kickoff today, War Memorial Stadium may be entirely empty next year.

The game's new ownership vows to give it the old college try, but made no promises about keeping the debt-ridden game here for its 60th anniversary next year. Hula Bowl chairman Kenny Hansmire said Wednesday it is "90 percent" the 2006 game will be played on Maui, and that moving it back to Oahu would not be a viable solution.

Organizers were hoping for a sellout -- or at least a full house, since many tickets are given away -- but as of yesterday afternoon, around 2,000 tickets were still available, a Hula Bowl spokeswoman said (and the ESPN2 live blackout on Maui still in effect).

One reason for the Hula Bowl's lack of fan allure is its lack of the prime talent. The game that used to attract Heisman Trophy winners and first-round draft picks now has only a few players projected to be picked on the first day of the NFL Draft (rounds one through three).

Today's game does have local star power, though. Hawaii quarterback Tim Chang, the NCAA career passing-yardage leader, is a drawing card. Also, UH receiver and kick returner Chad Owens is on the West team, though he might not play because of sore ribs.

Chang, who grew up attending Hula Bowls on Oahu and then watched teammates play here recently, said there was never a doubt he would play in the game once he was invited.

"I always wanted to come here to play one more game for the Hawaii fans. It means a lot," said Chang, who is also joined on the West team by Warriors teammates Lui Fuga and Uriah Moenoa. "We're all local, we all stayed home. It's a real big treat for us."

The game has also always been a chance for island fans to see former Hawaii high school stars who went away to college. Utah offensive lineman Chris Kemoe'atu and BYU safety Aaron Francisco led Kahuku to its first state championship in 2000. Both are now on the verge of NFL careers.

"This is special because I get to play for the people I grew up in front of. I'll have a lot of friends and family here," Francisco said.

The Hula Bowl is a challenge for the coaches, who try to give all the players equal chances to shine while trying to win the game.

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti heads the West team, and installed some trick plays in the four days of practice. As expected, his offense will be wide open.

"We'll definitely be throwing the ball a lot," he said.

The East offense might be somewhat more conservative with current Ohio and former Nebraska coach Frank Solich at the helm, in place of Georgia's Mark Richt, who pulled out of the game Sunday. He has one of the game's top offensive talents to work with, Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall, the ACC Player of the Year.

"The game is very important to these (players), it gives them another opportunity to get themselves on film," Solich said. "Also, it gives them a chance to get involved in special teams, which a lot of them will be playing for the first time in a long time, but they will be asked to do so as NFL rookies."

Much is at stake for all the players, but the quarterbacks in particular are jockeying for position. Chang, Randall, Sonny Cumbie (Texas Tech), Dustin Long (Sam Houston State), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Harvard), and Jared Allen (Florida Atlantic) are among a large group of talented quarterbacks from around the nation that won't be chosen early in the draft, but can do much to improve their standing in all-star games.

"I've been working hard hoping for an opportunity like this," said Allen, who led upstart FAU to a season-opening win over Hawaii at Aloha Stadium. "On Saturday we'll all go to battle and we'll see what happens. I never thought I'd end my college career in Hawaii."

E-mail to Sports Desk


© Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com