Commentary

Hawaii plans on continuing success, not rebuilding from scratch

Updated: May 2, 2008, 1:54 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

According to an unscientific search of several online dictionaries, there's no word in Hawaiian for rebuilding.

[+] EnlargeGreg McMackin
AP Photo/Ronen ZilbermanGreg McMackin hopes to bring a little more defense to the islands.
Greg McMackin and his players want it to stay that way.

Throughout his first spring practice as Hawaii's coach, McMackin emphasized a need for continuity. But after posting the best season in team history, the Warriors enjoyed very little.

To recap: Hawaii lost its pioneering coach, its record-setting quarterback, its top four wide receivers and much of the momentum from an undefeated regular season and a trip to the Sugar Bowl. The depth chart was pillaged. The upcoming schedule packed the punch it lacked last season, beginning with a trip to Florida on Aug. 30. The 59-year-old McMackin became a head coach for the first time since 1990, when he completed a four-year run at Oregon Tech. The team named two new coordinators. The athletic department named a new director.

Such flux usually signals a slump, and the common opinion, at least on the mainland, is that Hawaii will be starting over this fall. McMackin doesn't buy it.

"We're the defending WAC champions, and that's how we're going to play," he said. "We lost some good players, but we have some good players in our program, and we have some good recruits to complement the guys that we lost.

"I'm really excited about this football team. We just have to build our personality."

For the past nine seasons, June Jones was that personality.

In 1999, he took over a winless team operating on a bare-bones budget and took it to six bowl games before departing for SMU six days after the Sugar Bowl. He installed a dynamic offense that perennially piled up passing yards and points, and embraced the Hawaiian culture.

McMackin, who spent two stints as Jones' defensive coordinator at Hawaii, has no plans to uproot what his predecessor put in place. The offensive and defensive systems won't change dramatically. Both the haka, a New Zealand Maori war chant, and the ha'a, a version chanted in Hawaiian, will continue to be performed at games, and McMackin wants to get fans, band members and cheerleaders more involved.

I'm going to call the game, and I'm going to call it from a defensive standpoint. We're not going to go down and just try to outscore people.

--Greg McMackin

The two coaches are similar, but by no means is McMackin a Jones clone, as players found out during practices this spring.

"In my four years with coach Jones here, we went full pads about three times, maybe," quarterback Tyler Graunke said. "Every day [this spring] we were out there in full pads, pants, everything, and we were going full-go. We've got our helmets on during stretching. [McMackin] doesn't put up with much b.s.

"It's just a whole other level of intensity."

Linebacker Adam Leonard calls it "just the defensive side of him."

It's a side Hawaii fans will see more of on Saturdays this fall.

"I'm going to call the game, and I'm going to call it from a defensive standpoint," McMackin said. "We're not going to go down and just try to outscore people."

That last statement sounds sacrilegious coming from a Hawaii coach, but McMackin's defensive tilt is justified. Hawaii's offense has ranked among the top 20 nationally in each of the past seven seasons -- placing in the top 10 five times -- but the program didn't vault to elite status until the defense became respectable under McMackin's watch.

The Warriors finished 34th nationally in total defense last season, and despite getting gashed by Georgia for 41 points in the Sugar Bowl, hopes are high for the unit.

"Defense is our strong point," said Leonard, who recorded 105 tackles and four interceptions last season. "We're going to be even stronger than we've been in the past."

The secondary boasts playmaking cornerbacks in Ryan Mouton and Jameel Dowling, a transfer from Oregon who recorded six interceptions during spring scrimmages. Leonard passed up the NFL draft to rejoin fellow first-team All-WAC linebacker Solomon Elimimian and Blaze Soares, whom McMackin calls one of the best linebackers he's ever coached.

Sacks leader David Veikune returns to flank tackle Fale Laeli.

"Our front seven is one of the top in the country," McMackin said. "We're a top 20 front seven."

[+] EnlargeTyler Graunke
Icon SMITyler Graunke filled in last season when starting QB Colt Brennan was injured.

Hawaii's athletic facilities are unlikely to ever crack the national rankings, but long-awaited upgrades may no longer be a pipe dream.

The substandard facilities were in the national spotlight throughout the team's rise last year, as players and coaches refused to bite their tongues about the poor working conditions. Star quarterback Colt Brennan sounded off in May, complaining that players "can't even get soap in our locker room." Jones mentioned that the ratty carpet in his office hadn't changed since Dick Tomey last coached Hawaii in 1986.

Despite a statewide campaign to retain Jones that involved Gov. Linda Lingle, the coach's growing frustration about the facilities helped push him to SMU. In comparing SMU's facilities with Hawaii's at his introductory news conference, Jones fired a parting shot: "You're talking about the NFL and a Pop Warner team."

A day after Jones departed, Hawaii fired athletic director Herman Frazier, who had drawn criticism for, among other things, not accepting the full allotment of Sugar Bowl tickets. The facilities riddle fell into the lap of Jim Donovan, a former Hawaii offensive lineman and longtime administrator at the school who returned as athletic director after six years of running the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

"A lot of times it takes something negative to turn into a positive," Donovan said. "Even though there was a lot of focus on the facilities and there was some negative publicity and stuff, it becomes the catalyst for the [state] legislature, the university, the donors, to step forward and make things much better than they were. We're seeing that starting to happen."

Hawaii is in the process of installing a new turf practice field -- "It's definitely getting done," Donovan said -- and wants to move the football offices to refurbished space. Donovan's long-term goals include improvements to the locker rooms, equipment rooms, training rooms and weight rooms.

In February, the school signed an eight-year, $4.1 million agreement with Under Armour, thought to be the most lucrative apparel deal among WAC schools. McMackin said increased donations since the Sugar Bowl have led to more summer school scholarships and an upgraded video system for the coaches.

"Things are being done," he said. "I really believe it's the right time to be at Hawaii."

Jones no longer felt that way, but Donovan credits the former coach for the progress being made.

"Even by leaving, it might have been his last gift to the university to get people to focus on the things that we needed to improve," Donovan said. "It's starting to happen."

Jones' imprint remains with the offense, though there will be some nuances this fall with coordinator Ron Lee, who held the same position under McMackin at Oregon Tech. McMackin said Lee knows the run 'n' shoot offense better than anyone save for Jones and Mouse Davis.

Hawaii will operate more from under center and use play-action after lining up exclusively in the shotgun last season. The idea is to become more versatile, taking pressure off the new starting quarterback and leaning more on an offensive line that returns three starters, including All-WAC center John Estes.

"Last year, we got really complicated with game planning every week and getting away from our base rules," Estes said. "This year, it's just more clear-cut. We're just going to go off our base rules."

The changing formations initially bothered Graunke, who hadn't lined up under center since high school. But he improved his footwork during spring ball and remained on equal footing with junior Inoke Funaki in the competition for the starting spot.

Graunke, who rallied Hawaii to a win against Nevada last season after Brennan sustained a concussion, expected to enter the spring as the acknowledged starter. But he was suspended from the team Feb. 7 because of academic reasons and other unresolved missteps on his school record.

Jones had told Graunke to take care of things before the semester ended, but McMackin moved up the deadline.

"It was killing me," Graunke said "It was probably the most depressing month of my life."

Graunke and Funaki finished spring ball in a dead heat for the top job, but several players boosted their stock at Hawaii's iffiest position, wide receiver. McMackin praised the spring performances of outside receiver Greg Salas and slotbacks Aaron Bain and Kealoha Pilares, a converted running back. Graunke said senior Mike Washington has been on par with leading receiver Davone Bess the past few seasons and simply needed an opportunity.

The Warrior's top four receivers -- Bess, Ryan Grice-Mullen, Jason Rivers and C.J. Hawthorne -- combined for 367 receptions, 4,671 yards and 44 touchdowns last fall.

"It's a given that any time your starting quarterback and your starting four wide receivers leave, it's going to be some kind of slide," Leonard said. "The new guys just need that playing experience, and then they're going to be just fine."

Criticized for playing a soft schedule last fall, Hawaii supersized its 2008 slate. Two weeks after Florida, the Warriors visit Oregon State, and they finish with home games against Washington State and Cincinnati.

The WAC schedule isn't much help, either, with trips to Boise State and Fresno State. McMackin calls it the most challenging schedule Hawaii has ever played, one that undoubtedly fuels the rebuilding rumblings.

"A lot of people are going to think it's a rebuilding year, but that's exactly what it's not going to be," Graunke said. "We don't like to hear that around here. We're not backing down to anybody.

"We're just going to keep rolling."

Adam Rittenberg is a college football writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him at espnritt@gmail.com.