The memories are foggy 31 years later. Was it one or two seconds left in the game when that freshman from Georgia kicked the 70-yard field goal to give 56-point underdog Hawaii the win over No. 1-ranked Iowa, driving 50,000 fans at Aloha Stadium to delirium?
Yes, really foggy. And there are some of you out there who don’t have to look it up to remember that Iowa was not No. 1 in the 1988 preseason: it was 9th in one poll and 11th in the other. And it wasn’t a “last-second,” or even “last-minute” field goal by Jason Elam (and, the rest of this sentence IS no exaggeration), the greatest kicker in University of Hawaii history — and later, one of the NFL’s all-time best.
There was a whole 1 minute, 36 seconds left after Elam’s kick made it 27-24 … plenty of time for Iowa quarterback Chuck Hartlieb to find Travis Watkins in the end zone, and Watkins to catch the ball for a game-winning touchdown — and to have it called back because of a penalty flag thrown for holding.
And 70 yards??? Of course it wasn’t a 70-yard field goal! But that’s how far Elam’s TWO pressure-packed fourth-quarter kicks covered, combined, after he’d missed his first college try in the third quarter, from just 30 yards.
Elam recovered quickly enough to hit from 47 with 9:58 left in the game, giving UH as 24-21 lead. Then Iowa’s kicker Jeff Skillet, also a freshman, nailed one from 44 to tie it up again a couple of minutes later.
Warren Jones, the Rainbows senior quarterback, steadily drove the ‘Bows down the field — close enough for a 23-yard chippy for Elam, which he made.
Even after Iowa’s TD pass on the final drive was called back, the Hawkeyes had a chance. It was Skillet again, and again from 44 yards.
But this time, he missed, with 21 seconds remaining.
The crowd was actually counted at 43,371, and Hawaii was “just” a 28-point underdog, not 56.
Still, some were calling it the biggest win in UH football history.
Elam’s kicking is most remembered — even if the distance and time left are not. But there were many other standouts, including running back Heikoti Fakava, who kept coming out of the game but kept going back in, finishing with three touchdowns on 13 carries for 99 punishing yards — punitive for himself as much as the Iowa defense.
“He’s a great runner. We knew that coming in,” Iowa coach Hayden Fry said. “Gosh we must have knocked him out of the game three times. He just kept coming back. He’s a great inspiration to their team.”
So was David Maeva, the linebacker who made 17 tackles, including a stop at the UH 1 on fourth down in the first quarter, when Fry decided to test the Rainbows defense from the 4 instead of Skillet’s skill on a 21-yard field goal. (Someone else will have to come up with the clever “Fry” and “Skillet” line, I couldn’t. But I am suddenly mysteriously craving a couple of over-easy eggs and some bacon.)
Bob Wagner was in his second year as UH head coach, and the ‘Bows were coming off a 5-7 record in 1987 that included three straight losses to end the season.
This team would finish 9-3, closing out with a 41-17 romp over Oregon. (Which, granted, was not the Oregon of today.)
Scott Kauffman was sports editor of Ka Leo, the UH student newspaper, that year.
“The stadium was rocking,” Kauffman said. “Heikoti Fakava electrified the crowd with his always powerful and determined running. And this nice soft-spoken freshman Jason Elam had a coming out party, to say the least. You could sense this kicker was destined for greatness.”
But greatest win ever for the program to that point?
Maybe for a home opener. But for any game to start the season — as well as overall — members of the ’73 team that beat Washington 10-7 in Seattle and the ’55 squad that came back from Nebraska with a 6-0 victory might have a different opinion. (According to the UH media guide, the 1955 team also won a game at Honolulu Stadium two weeks before making history at Lincoln. But we’re not really going to count a tussle with the “Prep All-Stars” as the season opener, are we?)
Well, even though some of the details might be fuzzy, there are certainly many more fans who had eyes on that ’88 Iowa game than the two legendary road wins 15 and 33 years prior.
Then there’s the not-so-happy remembrance of a game to start a season for UH fans. And we have to bring up this one, because it was the same two schools meeting at the same stadium as this Saturday’s opener … and both teams are honoring the same coach who died in the offseason. And the 1998 meeting was memorable for both programs, as much as Hawaii wishes it could forget.
It had been 12 years since Dick Tomey left Manoa for Tucson, and if his assistant coaches looked familiar it’s because many of them had previously worked the home sideline or coaches box and even played for Hawaii. Dino Babers, now the highly regarded head coach at Syracuse, was in his first year as Wildcats offensive coordinator. Rich Ellerson, another former UH player and coach, was the defensive coordinator. And Wagner was on board, too, as a defensive assistant, following his firing in 1995 — just three years after leading UH to a historic 11-2, WAC championship and Holiday Bowl-winning campaign.
It was over almost before it started … and brought back memories of the huge stock Tomey put in special teams.
If your pregame preparation was just a few seconds too long, you missed Chris McAlister’s 100-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff. That the future first-round draft pick and three-time Pro Bowl NFL star was even on the field for the kickoff was no surprise to fans familiar with Tomey’s style. Several other starters were out there, too, blocking for McAlister.
It set the tone not just for Arizona’s 27-6 win in Tomey’s homecoming game … but also the fate of both teams for the rest of the season. Hawaii went 0-12, and Fred vonAppen was gone after three inglorious seasons, and along came June Jones with hope — and fulfillment — in ’99. For the Wildcats, it was the start of something great, a 12-1 record and No. 5 final ranking. No Rose Bowl because of the lone stumble, a 52-28 loss to UCLA. But this was Tomey’s finest team at Arizona — we can only wonder how his ’81 Hawaii team might have fared against it.
Most of the current players were not yet born in 1998. But they’ll know at least a little bit about Dick Tomey and what he meant to both football programs when his memory is honored before Saturday’s kickoff.
Warriors head coach Nick Rolovich has been involved in interesting openers, as a Hawaii player and mentor.
In 2000, he was the new starting quarterback headed into a season of huge expectations after the 9-4 the previous year in Jones’ debut as UH’s head coach. But Rolovich and the rest of the Warriors were bushwhacked 45-20 by Portland State, where Jones had quarterbacked a similar version of the run-and-shoot offense to what he coached at Manoa.
When Rolo was Hawaii’s offensive coordinator in 2010, the Warriors posted 36 points in their opener against USC; only problem is the Trojans had 49. But it was a confidence-builder for the offense, and UH went 10-4 including a share of the WAC championship.
Saturday’s game is the first home opener for Rolovich as a head coach. In 2016, Hawaii lost 51-31 to Cal in Australia. The Warriors went to UMass and won, 38-35 in 2017, and last year they won their opener again, 43-34, at Colorado State.
“Colorado State was obviously good for us,” he said after a practice this week. “Sydney? The way we competed most of that game, I was proud, and I think the trip had long-term benefits.”
Here are my top tens for all-time good and bad UH football season-opening games. Yeah, I know I’m playing both sides of the street on the non-college-opponent thing. Sorry ’bout that, but couldn’t resist getting Polar Bears in there.
1. 6-0 at Nebraska, 1955: Moment of silence for Charlie Araki please, stalwart on this legendary team and leader on academic side of UH for decades thereafter
2. 10-7 at Washington, 1973: Run up the middle against Levi Stanley, you deserve to lose
3. 27-24 against Iowa, 1988: Maybe UH should open with Big Ten more often; beat Minnesota in ’97, too
4. 15-13 against BYU, 1974: More significance with each of the 10 losses to the Cougars that follow
5. 24-21 at Oregon, 1992: Great start to great season
6. 25-17 loss at Alabama, 2006: Warriors — who outscore Tide 14-10 after break, lose only because clock hits zero
7. 12-6 against Polar Bears, 1939: Bears must have learned lesson and flown in a week early to acclimate the next year because they won 35-28 in ’40
8. 61-36 against Eastern Ilinois, 2002: Tony Romo, the Panthers QB, could not yet magically predict what defenses would do before every play
9. 43-34 at Colorado State, 2018: Great confidence booster for return of run-and-shoot
10: 83-6 over Coast Defense, 1923: Good thing no one tried to invade Oahu that year
(As you’d expect, these are all losses)
1. 27-6 to Arizona, 1998: The journey to 0-12 started here
2. 43-9 to Texas A&I, 1975: UH’s first game at Aloha Stadium embarrassing loss to lower-division team
3. 45-20 to Portland State, 2000: Warriors puffy chests deflated quickly by coach June Jones’ alma mater
4: 24-21 to Boston College, 1996: VonAppen’s debut; interesting but Eagles caught betting against own team that season
5. 35-28 to Florida Atlantic, 2004: Another loss to a lower-division program
6. 56-10 at Florida, 2008: Even with Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez sitting out for Gators
7. 20-13 to Saint Louis Alumni, 1931: No excuse, since Kreutz, Mariota, Tagovailoa still all a few months away from Crusader for Life status
8. 49-10 at USC, 2012: Beginning of Chow Time; no fun getting crushed by a previous work place, even if they were ranked No. 1
9. 7-0 to Kamehameha, 1915: ‘Bows bounce back with wins against McKinley and Punahou
10. 62-7 to USC, 1999: Answer to win your bar bet is Quincy LeJay, on a pick-6; big turnaround starts the second week of JJ’s tenure