Hawaii. Vacationers and certain TV detectives love it, but football coaches dread it. The latter lay awake nights trying to discover ways of overcoming the problems of travel, time changes and scenic distractions inherent on the Honolulu road trip.
Some coaches choose to arrive in Honolulu the day of the game. Some arrive days before the game. Some consult sleep specialists. Some hold midnight practices. Some order hourly doses of water for their players on the team plane. Some sequester their teams on a local Marine base.And yet, for all these coaches' imaginative experiments, Hawaii remains one of the toughest stops in college football - even though the Rainbows are really only an average team. No wonder nobody can pry the 'Bows off the Islands these days.
Only one team seems to have the Hawaii trip figured out. BYU has beaten the 'Bows 10 consecutive times, eight of them in Honolulu. So naturally someone once asked BYU Coach LaVell Edwards the best way to play Hawaii in Honolulu.
"Go over there with a good team," was his dry reply.
Edwards' Hawaii routine is characteristically no-nonsense. The Cougars arrive Thursday, stay at the Princess Kaiulani Hotel on Waikiki, put in some beach time, take in a show, then catch the redeye home immediately after the game.
The routine seems to have worked. Now the question is, can BYU do it again? When the nationally ranked Cougars, 6-1, meet Hawaii, 5-2, in Aloha Stadium late Saturday night (11:30 your time), can they find yet another way to pull out a victory? After a decade of close calls, it seems certain that one of these years the 'Bows will finally get their dream come true, and yet they have never beaten the Cougars since joining the Western Athletic Conference in 1979.
Every year Hawaii's media, fans and players eagerly anticipate the BYU game, even months before the kickoff, and every year they suffer a letdown, but not without a number of spectacular plays or close finishes or both. This series, always hard-hitting, intense and emotional, has a flair for the dramatic. Jim McMahon's left-footed punt. Kyle Morrell's leapfrog, goal-line tackle. Kurt Gouveia's body slam of Walter Murray. And almost always the game goes to the wire. Some sample scores: 24-23. 16-14. 10-3. 18-13. 13-3.
"They're up and down against other teams, but they always play extremely well against us," says Edwards.
You're familiar with all the reasons for Hawaii's near-obsession with beating BYU. For one thing, BYU annually recruits a large number of top Hawaiian players from the Islands, which makes their game a Polynesian showdown and payback time for swiping hometown talent. For another thing, there is that 10-game losing streak.
The pre-game hype for this Saturday's game is no different than for past BYU games. "They've been writing about it for three or four weeks," says Edwards. "Somebody sent me a newspaper column. The gist of the story was that everything else is for naught, that it doesn't matter what else happens if they don't beat BYU."
And this was before the Rainbows dropped out of the WAC title race with a loss last week, which left the championship to either BYU or Air Force. That means neither Hawaii nor BYU faces a must-win situation Saturday night as far as the WAC race is concerned. BYU could lose to Hawaii and still win the WAC, simply by winning the remainder of its league games.
What BYU will be trying to do is protect its national ranking. Hawaii, meanwhile, will be seeking a bowl bid. The Aloha Bowl reportedly is still interested in signing the Rainbows - but only if they beat BYU Saturday.
At home, the Rainbows are a Top 20-caliber team; on the road, well, let's put it this way: they scheduled all of two road games this season and lost both - to mediocre Wyoming and mediocre Colorado State. In five home games, the Rainbows have scored an average of 50 points; in their two road games they scored 15 and 16 points, respectively.
That leaves the Rainbows with 10 home games. Ten home games!? you say. The Rainbows benefit annually from an old NCAA rule that allows teams to play a 12th game if one of their games is played outside of the continental U.S. The Rainbows have played eight or more home games annually for 24 consecutive years.
As Utah assistant coach Wayne McQuivey says, "Everybody's grumbling about 10 home games, but nobody's grumblng about a 12th game. It all comes down to finances."
Many teams (Air Force, BYU) elect to play Hawaii in Honolulu annually because the 12th game means more money and allows them to play another non-conference game. Other teams (Utah, for instance) have chosen to play 12 games only in the years when it's their turn to travel to Honolulu anyway.
"In my opinion that's plenty," says McQuivey. "I don't see the advantage of playing over there. That's a tough game. Look at how tough they've played BYU. Even against BYU's great teams the games were close."
Coaches say that what makes Honolulu a tough place to play, even more than the time and travel problems, is the crowd. It's an intangible problem, but real enough that it can dictate momentum and alter strategy.
Says McQuivey, "We planned to go with a no-huddle offense over there this year, but nobody could hear (quarterback Scott) Mitchell's audibles. The crowd was so loud. On the third play, our center couldn't hear the audible and snapped the ball over Mitchell's head."
Similarly, Edwards says the power of the crowd and the momentum is so strong in Aloha Stadium that it's the one place he has considered accepting the opening kickoff rather than defer to the second half, when given a choice. "It's important to take an early lead there," says Edwards.
Edwards should know. Saturday will mark the sixth consecutive season his team has played in Honolulu. By now he knows what to expect. "It's going to be all-out war," he says.