Critical hire coming up for Hawaii

March, 9, 2010
There was a time in the 1990s, when I covered the WAC, that Hawaii had as competitive a program as any in school in the league.

There were challenges that were unique to the Rainbow Warriors. It was hard to get freshmen to come over from the mainland, because a lot of them weren't ready to be so far from home or mature enough to be independent. Former coach Riley Wallace had assistant Jackson Wheeler on the mainland mining the junior colleges. The Rainbows also found a niche internationally.

And the noise at Neal Blaisdell Arena and later the Stan Sheriff Center was a decided advantage for Hawaii.

Hawaii made the NCAAs behind guard Trevor Ruffin in 1994. Wallace again took Hawaii to NCAA appearances in 2001 and '02.

Going to Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic was a big deal in the early '90s when Kansas, North Carolina and other schools at that level made trips to Honolulu for the tournament.

But many factors have gone against Hawaii in the past decade, limiting the Rainbows' ability to be relevant beyond the islands. The explosion of early-season tournaments made competition for Hawaii too much for its tournament. The pool of JC players drained as standards changed, taking away that option as more players went to prep schools. The WAC's implosion and subsequent arrival of the Mountain West was yet another hit.

And the arms race in financial backing didn't help either. Wallace had the Rainbows at 10-6 in conference play in 2006 and then a solid 8-8 in his final season in 2007. Longtime assistant Bob Nash, who was on the first Hawaii NCAA team in 1972, was going to get a shot at being the head coach. Herman Frazier, the AD at the time, had no choice but to hire Nash. Nash is a good man. He is well-liked by everyone I know in the business. He worked with Pitt coach Jamie Dixon under Wallace, and there is a rooting interest for Nash among many of his coaching brethren. But he probably never had a chance.

Hawaii continued a slide that went from 11-19 in Year 1 to 13-17 in Year 2 to an embarrassing 10-20 record in Year 3 and a failure to qualify for the eight-team WAC tournament in Reno this week.

The program has never been lower. Like many of these programs out West, the school is essentially the pro team in the area. That's the way fans in New Mexico treat the Lobos. The same is true of UNLV in Las Vegas and certainly in places like Arizona in Tucson.

"I told [Hawaii] two years before I retired that it was it for me, yet they waited too long to hire Bob and we lost some kids," said Wallace, who now lives in Las Vegas. The hiring process for Nash did drag out into the spring. Wallace claims that he would have landed Gary Wilkinson, who went to Utah State and had a successful career in leading the Aggies to the NCAAs. "I never lost a player at Hawaii that we wanted that someone like Utah State wanted. It was little things like that."

Wallace said scheduling was always an issue but it was more of a difficult road stop because of how well Hawaii played. Remember a few years ago, Michigan State made the mistake of going to Hawaii on the way to the Maui Invitational and got hammered by 22 in 2006 in the season opener.

Now the Rainbows have trouble scheduling because the win won't mean as much. Sure, a new tournament -- the Diamond Head Classic -- started this season and included Hawaii. This season's field was solid, with USC beating UNLV in the final and also included Saint Mary's. But the Rainbows were one of the weaker teams. Old WAC partners New Mexico, BYU and UNLV (as part of the tournament) came out to play a game in home-and-home situations, and that must continue. But Hawaii lost all three of them.

"We had [eight] straight winning seasons, and overall we went to three NCAAs and six NITs," Wallace said of his career that started at Hawaii in 1988. "But it went down pretty fast. There aren't many excuses. The bottom line is you've got to win."

The Hawaii program was proud. It should be again. But the Rainbows have to make the right hire.

Oregon's Ernie Kent should be available, can recruit and plays an up-tempo style that would work well on the islands. The fans love to see teams run. They will support this program if there is a good watch on the floor. Kent -- who has coached in the Middle East, at Saint Mary's and at his alma mater Oregon -- would be a good fit. So too would Northern Colorado's Tad Boyle, whom Wallace watched beat the Rainbows earlier this season. Saint Mary's assistant Kyle Smith, a good friend of Dixon's, certainly could be in the mix if the Rainbows want to go with an assistant, since Smith has Australian connections, too. A niche works for the Rainbows, and might be one of the only ways to get the program relevant again.

"You've got to get someone that can recruit, that really coaches the game," Wallace said. "You've got to have two really good recruiters who stay on the road. It will be tough. They have time to get on it. I'm telling you, when you win there they will pack the house. Bob loves the program. He loves Hawaii. He was given his shot."

It didn't work. No one can debate it. But this program deserves to return to being a player. The university needs it. The state's hoops fans crave it. There is plenty to do in Hawaii other than staying inside and watching games. Having a winning team -- one that competes at a higher level and is relevant nationally, one that can come close to the Top 25 -- will give the fans a connection to the mainland. This is a critical hire for Hawaii, one of the most important hires the university will make in the next decade.

• Expect Virginia's Sylven Landesberg to be playing somewhere else next season. Multiple sources said Landesberg has already investigated declaring for the NBA draft. The possible 2011 lockout has some players running to declare this spring. But more importantly, Landesberg is academically ineligible by Virginia standards and needs to get that in order before he even attempts to come back to the team. There has been a division among all parties in Charlottesville, and it looks less likely that he will be back at UVa playing for Tony Bennett and more probable that he will seek a professional contract.

• Kent, as mentioned above, is likely out. When that happens, know this: Nike/Oregon will go after a former national championship coach. That means they will hit up Minnesota's Tubby Smith, possibly to no avail. The Gophers are making life quite nice for Smith, and he can keep the Gophers relevant for years. John Canzano of the Oregonian wrote Tuesday about the possibility of former Trail Blazers coach P.J. Carlesimo. I have heard that as well, and he would bring some cachet. Regardless, since the Mark Few (Gonzaga) courtship isn't going to happen, the Ducks will attempt to go big-time with this hire and exhaust all Nike possibilities as well.


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