April 21, 2008

McMackin hopes to help Hawaii move forward

After 39 years in coaching, new Hawaii coach Greg McMackin recently came across a problem none of his game-planning and past preparation could solve: He needed to find a way to get a horse across the Pacific Ocean.

Now that McMackin's stay at Hawaii is more permanent, the rest of the family will follow from the mainland. The move is something of a Texas trade. Former Hawaii coach June Jones bolted for SMU ; in turn, McMackin's daughter, his two grandchildren and all the family pets including a horse named Cabaret are moving from Lubbock, Texas, to join him on the island.

That was just the first of McMackin's tasks. He also has to find a quarterback for a team whose past two signal-callers, Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan, rank first and third, respectively, in career passing yards in Division I-A history. The solution might be gulp running the ball more or even winning with defense.

The other pressing issue is to repair the confidence of a team that went 12-1 and won the WAC championship. But a 41-10 loss in the Sugar Bowl to Georgia bruised the Warriors' egos.

"I look around and see it's not the same program, but we can be a better program than it was last year," said linebacker Adam Leonard, a Rivals.com first-team All-WAC selection last season. "In college, personnel changes all the time. We're going through what every college goes through."

Turnover is routine in college football, but not always this drastic. Jones made Hawaii nationally relevant, with its first trip to a major bowl. Brennan went to New York as the school's first Heisman finalist. But in less than four months since the loss in the Sugar Bowl, Hawaii has had to replace its coach, the star quarterback, three 1,000-yard receivers and its athletic director.

Jones left for SMU on Jan. 7; athletic director Herman Frazier was fired the next day.

Hawaii replaced Jones with McMackin, who was defensive coordinator in '07 as well as on Jones' first Hawaii team in 1999, which set a Division I-A record by improving from 0-12 to 9-4.

McMackin has a tough job ahead of him, even for a first-year coach. He'll have to make sure Hawaii doesn't fall out of the national spotlight with a thud. The new coach, quarterback and offense will be tested immediately by facing Florida in Gainesville in the season-opener, then Oregon State in Corvallis in Week Three. Hawaii also faces WAC favorites Boise State and Fresno State on the mainland before the end of October.

Hawaii is on tenuous footing in terms of public opinion despite its 12-0 regular season last year. The one-loss Warriors finished the season ranked 19th in the country, behind four four-loss teams. The main culprit was the disastrous Sugar Bowl. Georgia had eight sacks and forced six turnovers.

"Early in the game, we were a little big-eyed," McMackin said. "Hawaii has played a lot of big games, but this was a Super Bowl-type of situation."

If Hawaii is to return to a major bowl, the Warriors will have to do it with new faces all over the roster. Only four defensive starters return; the offense returns just three starters.

McMackin will continue to use the run-and-shoot offense that has helped Hawaii finish No. 1 or 2 nationally in passing offense every season since 2001. Junior Inoke Funaki and senior Tyler Graunke, who started two games while Brennan was injured last season, are competing for the starting quarterback spot this spring. Junior college transfers Greg Alexander and Brent Rausch arrive in the fall.

Expect some tweaks, though, with a new quarterback and an inexperienced receiving corps. Offensive coordinator Ron Lee, who was the wide receivers coach for nine seasons before his promotion, has been tinkering with using the quarterback under center and putting more emphasis on the run game. "He plans on adding a dimension," Funaki said. "He can add to it and help us to be more versatile."

In short, the plan is to take some of the pressure off the quarterback. Brennan threw the ball 510 times and ran it 82 times despite missing all of the win over Charleston Southern and most of the win over Nevada.

With a new starting quarterback, McMackin hopes the responsibilities of carrying the offense are a little more evenly distributed.

"We're going to set up the run with the pass," McMackin said. "With the veterans (last year), they were able to take off to another level. We lost some players, so we're probably going to be more basic."

Before spring practice started, McMackin sent a clear message to the offense and the rest of the team. Graunke, who appeared to be the heir to the quarterback position, was suspended for 40 days. Graunke told reporters the suspension was because of academics. He returned in time for spring practice, but he had lost ground to Funaki. With the spring game less than two weeks away, Graunke and Funaki are neck and neck.

"He told us he's going to be fair in his rules," Leonard said. "It doesn't matter if you're one of best players or one of the not-so-great players. He has a certain standard he wants everybody to live by. Nobody gets an exception from the rules."

The biggest impact on the program likely won't be the new quarterback or even the new coach. This season is expected to bring some long-overdue renovations to Hawaii's facilities. Hawaii lagged behind many other programs in locker room, practice field and coaching-office facilities, and the lack of improvements was a factor in Jones' departure and Frazier's firing.

Now, Hawaii expects to make headway by adding an artificial surface to the practice field and completing work on coaches' offices. The school is hopeful both will be ready before this season.

The estimated $2.5 million earned by Hawaii from the Sugar Bowl (after expenses) could help new athletic director Jim Donovan, a Hawaii alum and former associate athletic director, make further improvements to the program. But the athletic department has a deficit of between $4.5 million and $4.9 million, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin has reported.

Thus, administrators hope and, frankly, need football to continue to be a cash cow. That's just one more responsibility for McMackin.

"They're working to make it a great situation," McMackin said. "I want to keep the journey going."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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