Timmy Chang's homecoming to Hawai'i is about more than just football

HONOLULU -- Before he became a cult legend by setting the NCAA Division I-A career passing record as a quarterback at Hawai'i, Timmy Chang had a battle to win at home.

He was the No. 1 football recruit in the state in the Class of 2000 which, to the delight of his parents, brought an assembly line of college recruiters from the mainland. For his parents, those schools -- namely Cal, Utah and USC -- represented opportunity in a way that staying in Hawai'i did not. They wanted him to leave.

"I really kind of fought them on that," Chang said. "I told them, 'I feel like there's more opportunity here. I want to live here [after college] and if I'm gonna live here, I should play for the home state.'"

It's a story Chang has likely told many times before, but as he recalled the tale of his own recruitment this past spring, he did so from inside his new office as the Hawai'i head football coach. If his 17,072 passing yards and 117 touchdowns for the Rainbow Warriors hadn't made his point years ago, all he had to do was look around the room to emphasize how prophetic the logic he provided his parents had become.

Chang's return to Hawai'i isn't as simple as a former player returning to their alma mater. His elementary school is less than a mile from the university's athletic complex. Saint Louis School, where he started playing football in seventh grade and eventually won multiple state titles in high school, is even closer. The view from his office looks out at the Rainbow Warriors' temporary home stadium, where at 5 years old he started working as a ball boy during football games his dad officiated.

Perhaps no coach in college football has such strong ties to a school and its surrounding community as Chang. That's why after two tumultuous seasons under Todd Graham and a mass exodus of key players through the transfer portal, Chang's timing was right. The state of the program -- with its dated on-campus facilities, paltry budget and a lack of clarity about a permanent stadium -- demanded someone with an affinity for the place who could restore an eroded culture.

It's a role Chang has been preparing for his whole life. After seven months on the job, Chang's first real test comes Saturday as the Rainbow Warriors host Vanderbilt (10:30 p.m., ET, CBSSN).

"When I played, it felt like I put a state on my back and now I tell the kids, 'The state needs you to make that block. This state's relying on you.' They understand," he said. "It's bigger than me. It's for this whole community, all eight islands. That's kind of what makes [coaching here] really special, especially when you're born and raised here."

GRAHAM WAS A BIZARRE fit for Hawai'i from the start.

A brash Texan with a reputation as a disciplinarian, Graham had no ties to the island, and his previous coaching gig had ended when Arizona State decided it was better off paying his $12 million buyout than letting him return for a seventh season.

Hawai'i's strict regulations related to the coronavirus pandemic -- which emerged shortly after Graham was hired -- created a difficult environment to develop relationships and build a program. It's impossible to quantify how much that made a difference during Graham's tenure, but regardless, it didn't work.

When Graham resigned Jan. 15, with three years left on his original five-year contract, his relationship with several players had deteriorated past the point of no return. At a state senate meeting the week prior, biting testimony from current and former players included allegations of verbal abuse and painted the picture of a culture rampant with dysfunction. He finished with an 11-11 record.

Graham denied the allegations of abuse at the meeting, but by that point starting quarterback Chevan Cordeiro (San Jose State), leading rusher Dae Dae Hunter (Liberty), leading receiver Nick Mardner (Cincinnati), leading tackler linebacker Darius Muasau (UCLA), linebacker Khoury Bethley (Arizona State) and defensive lineman Jonah Laulu (Oklahoma) were among a group of more than a dozen who had either transferred or were in the portal.

A cultural reset was needed.

Athletic director David Matlin, who had remained an advocate for Graham up until his resignation, fielded hundreds of text messages and calls when the job opened. Among the people he heard from was Jay Norvell, who had just taken the job at Colorado State after spending the previous five years as the head coach at Nevada. Over a 50-minute call, Norvell advocated for Matlin to take a long look at Chang, who had been one of his assistants the past five seasons.

"I'm listening to him and in my mind, I'm thinking '[Chang is] a serious candidate,'" Matlin said.

Chang hadn't experienced prolonged success as a coordinator that would have made him an attractive candidate at most other places, but for what Hawai'i needed, he made sense. During his five-year career from 2000-04, Chang became one of the most beloved players in school history.

If there was someone who could relate to the players and lean back into the program's history, it was Chang. But after he interviewed on Zoom and his candidacy gained momentum, a June Jones-sized wrench was thrown into the equation.

Jones, the 69-year-old former Hawai'i coach who guided the team to a 12-0 regular season and Sugar Bowl berth in 2007, publicly expressed his interest in returning to the role he held for nine seasons (1999-2007).

Still a prominent figure in Hawai'i, Jones had been passed over for the job when Nick Rolovich was hired prior to the 2016 season, but this time Matlin was open to entertaining the possibility of a return. Jones had suggested a coach-in-waiting model with Rolovich years earlier, which gave Matlin reason to believe Jones would have interest in something similar with Chang, who he recruited, coached, hired as a graduate assistant and knew for over 20 years.

Chang was on board, but when Matlin proposed the succession plan -- Jones would be the head coach for at least two years before the program transitioned to Chang -- Jones wasn't interested. On Twitter, he wrote, "No coach in their right mind would accept" what Matlin proposed. Jones was later named the offensive coordinator of the Seattle XFL franchise under head coach Jim Haslett.

Matlin's idea for Chang to serve as coach-in-waiting behind Jones likely would have been received mostly favorably in Hawai'i, but once it fell through, it inadvertently undercut the notion Chang was ready for the gig and partially soured the announcement.

"A lot of people's first thought was, 'Wait a minute, hold on,'" said defensive coordinator Jacob Yoro, who was a few years ahead of Chang at Saint Louis and has known his new boss since he was 12. "They see Timmy as a 20-year-old throwing touchdowns. Maybe not very polished in TV interviews. That's what they still had in their mind about him. But that's not him."

Chang had largely been out of the spotlight in Hawai'i since his playing career ended and his return led to somewhat of a reintroduction after 10 years of coaching on the mainland.

"The amount of people that I've spoken to in the business community or school community that have said, 'Gosh, I didn't realize how articulate Timmy was and I didn't realize he had such a great vision,' it just kinda speaks to that," Yoro said. "They still saw him as such a young dude and now they're listening to him and he sounds like a head coach."

Beyond the roster turnover, Chang also inherited a problematic stadium situation. Aloha Stadium, the former site of the NFL Pro Bowl and Hawai'i's home since 1975, is set to be demolished by 2024 and its replacement isn't expected to be ready until the 2026 season at the earliest.

In the meantime, Hawai'i is playing on campus at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletic Complex, which previously catered to practice, track and field, soccer and high school football. The stadium expanded from roughly 3,500 to just more than 9,000 to serve as the temporary home, but it's not enough.

Supply-chain issues derailed a plan to get to 12,000 for this season; however, by next season, the school announced T.C. Ching's capacity will reach 17,000. Assuming there are no delays with the new Aloha Stadium, that still means the program will have significantly reduced ticket sales for at least a six-year period (COVID-19 restrictions permitted Hawai'i to have fans at only one game over the past two seasons).

Beyond the impact on the athletic department's budget, the capacity limitations create a potential issue with the football program's FBS status. The NCAA requires a two-year rolling home attendance average of at least 15,000 in its top tier. With sellouts of every game this season at roughly 9,000 and next season at 17,000, Hawai'i would still fall short. According to the NCAA manual, "There shall be no waivers of the Football Bowl Subdivision membership requirements."

Should Hawai'i's average attendance be less than 15,000 over the next two seasons, it would trigger a notice of noncompliance that essentially serves as a warning. If at any point over the following 10 seasons the two-year rolling averages dips below 15,000 again, then the football program would be placed into restricted FBS membership, preventing it from participating in the postseason.

There is no expectation at Hawai'i that these rules will threaten the program's long-term viability and there is the possibility these rules can change, but for now, Chang has no choice but to embrace what they have.

"In all honesty, I'm never gonna sell these facilities," he said, pointing at T.C. Ching. "I'm never gonna sell this stadium right here. That's not the selling point. The selling points are everything else. It's the state. It's everything else about why people love Hawai'i."

DURING CHANG'S PLAYING CAREER, the Rainbow Warriors were one of the most entertaining teams in the county. They never cracked the AP top-25, but that didn't stop them from becoming the adopted team of fans all over the country -- especially in Las Vegas.

For those in need of their late-night college football fix, Hawai'i was the team of choice. For gamblers, the day's final game served as a make-it-or-break-it event (and still does).

Chang had already been used to the attention. He first appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in 1993. He was 11 and helped lead his AAU baseball team to a national championship in Kansas City.

"I might have had a triple or something," he said. "I know I had a big hit."

The newspaper went on to extensively document his career at Saint Louis, where he won a national high school player of the year award, and his time at UH. Few athletes in state history have generated as much attention.

Aside from wanting to represent the state, Chang was drawn to the possibility of playing early in his college career. The Run and Shoot offense Jones installed was similar to the system Chang succeeded in at Saint Louis, so he thought he could make a quick transition.

As a true freshman, he competed with Rolovich, a junior college transfer, for the starting job in training camp, but came up short. However, after Rolovich struggled in the opener and in the first half of the second game, Jones went to Chang and he remained the starter for the rest of the season. A year after sharing the WAC title, Hawai'i finished 3-9.

"It was a great learning experience," he said. "But it was really kind of a rebuilding stage."

He missed most of the next season due to injury and was granted a medical redshirt before returning in 2002, and that's when his career took off. He finished second in the country behind Texas Tech's Kliff Kingsbury in passing yards (4,474) as the team went 10-4. He passed for more than 4,000 yards again the next two seasons.

Chang got a few NFL training camp opportunities and spent a season in NFL Europe, but never latched on with an NFL team. He spent parts of two seasons in the Canadian Football League to round out his career.

"I feel like I was before the times a little bit," Chang said. "I think Kliff and [fellow Texas Tech QB] Sonny Cumbie and a lot of those Air Raid quarterbacks and us Run and Shoot quarterbacks will all tell you the same.

"I'd be in the shotgun the whole time and the NFL wasn't doing that. They weren't in shotgun. They weren't using spread offenses. Now, fast forward 15, 20 years and we're all in shotgun."

Chang won't call the plays for Hawai'i. That responsibility will go to his offensive coordinator, Ian Shoemaker, whose offenses in parts of three seasons at Eastern Washington were among the most explosive in FCS, averaging 537.1 yards and 41.3 points per game.

WEEKS AFTER CHANG ACCEPTED the job, he had his assistant coaches enroll in classes about Hawaiian culture. If they were going to represent the state, they needed to understand what makes it unique.

That's not a revolutionary concept, but Hawai'i is unlike any other place in college football.

"This state has no professional team," Chang said. "We're it. Everybody's gonna follow UH football and identify themselves with that. Then you have the effect of this being one of the most isolated places on earth."

The university campus is located in the lush, green Manoa Valley, at the base of Ko'olau Range, the remains of a prehistoric volcano. Diamond Head, the famous volcanic cone, is visible just a few miles to the south and Waikiki Beach is less than 10 minutes away by car.

For all its natural beauty, it's the Hawaiian people, Chang said, that makes the place what it is.

"Being in the island chain, we're here, everybody else is there," he said. "And then there is all of the rich traditions. Hawai'i had its own monarchy at one time. It has a story. It has a history. It has its own language. It has its music. It has its dance. It has its culture. It has its people. So when you add up all these different things, it's so good and it's such a great feeling to be back. And everything is so much better when this team does well."

Despite its relatively small population (roughly 1.4 million), the state has produced a long list of talented players. Nine players on opening day NFL rosters in 2021 went to high school in Hawai'i, but none of them stayed to play at UH. Keeping top players at home is a priority everywhere in college football, but Chang thinks he can create a culture that makes it more appealing for Hawai'i boys to stay home than in recent years.

Still, it will always be tough to compete when Power 5 programs on the mainland are involved.

Take Wynden Ho'ohuli, for example. When he developed into a four-star prospect at Mililani High, he received multiple Power 5 offers before deciding on Nebraska.

"[In Hawai'i] we have big talent here going out to other places, trying to make a name for themselves," Ho'ohuli said. "Cause no one wants to be stuck on here forever. People want to go out and experience and take their talents somewhere else. I swear if everybody stayed back -- if all the Hawai'i talent stayed back, we'd be right there contending with Alabama. I promise that."

After a year in Lincoln, though, Ho'ohuli "wasn't feeling it," and when he saw Chang was taking over, he knew it was something he wanted to be part of. He has known Chang since childhood and his dad played with him at UH.

Isaiah Tufaga also started his career on the mainland, spending his freshman season at Oregon State. Like Ho'ohuli, Tufaga's time away led him to appreciate home a bit more.

"Honestly, coming back was probably one of the best decisions I've made," he said. "It humbled me, coming back from a Power 5 conference, but I'm having more fun and appreciating the game a lot more."

Those experiences matter. Players talk. And now that the NCAA does not require players to sit out a season when they transfer, the Hawai'i players are anticipating that it will become even more common in the future for locals to return home to play after experiencing life off the island.

"I've been talking to a couple of the boys that are in the mainland and they're saying like, 'Oh, how is it with Coach Chang there?'" Ho'ohuli said. "I was like, 'It feels like high school ball again with all the brothers back together.' Everybody is just having a good time because that's just what we love about the sport. Just having a good time and being out here, playing the sport that we love. Nothing can get better than that."

That special camaraderie is why Chang always wanted to end up back in Hawai'i, and what he hopes can reignite the program.