For Hawaii's cash-strapped football team, parity is on the field

In an era of big athletic budgets, the undefeated Warriors have played smart and rallied an island.

Rhythmically moving in unison to native Hawaiian chants and movements, the Hawaii Warriors claim football turf as their battlefield in a pregame ritual called the "ha'a."

"It's calling out all the warriors and people of Hawaii to stand up and be ready because we're going into battle," says Hawaii senior linebacker Brad Kalilimoku.

In the greatest battle of Hawaii's football history, the team will bring the "ha'a" to New Orleans in the Jan. 1 Allstate Sugar Bowl game against the University of Georgia.

The road to Hawaii's first-ever Bowl Championship Series (BCS) game was an improbable one, as skeptics criticized the Western Athletic Conference team's weak strength of schedule and frequent need for comeback victories. But by the 2007 season's end, BCS No. 10-ranked Hawaii remained the sole unbeaten team in Division 1-A football, achieving the first perfect 12-0 season in the program's history.

What makes Hawaii's pile-driving trajectory so remarkable is that, in an era of college athletics dominated by big bucks, the team's budget is just an iota of that of many of its competitors. Hawaii will face the No. 4-ranked Georgia Bulldogs, a team that earns the highest profit margin of any collegiate athletic program, according to 2006 data from the US Department of Education. Georgia's football program alone brings in more than $60.3 million in revenue compared to Hawaii's $7.5 million. Hawaii's underdog story is a nostalgic reminder of an era when a team's budget/deficit column wasn't correlated to its win/loss column.

"There is typically a decided advantage for well-funded schools such as Georgia," says David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "In preparation for game day, these programs typically have better support for training and academics."

Hawaii athletic director Herman Frazier says his department, which earned a $7,483 profit during the 2006 fiscal year, has made substantial progress since recording a $2.5 million deficit just five years ago.

"Everyone wants to talk about budget versus budget, but it comes down to student athletes versus student athletes," says Mr. Frazier over phone from Honolulu. "They will show that they are just as good as the athletes from the University of Georgia."

Hawaii football coach June Jones says he hopes the BCS appearance profit – which Frazier estimates to be $2 million to $3 million after travel expenses – will go toward the recruiting budget and facility improvements. Mr. Jones says improvements are necessary to keep the team on the top tier, a level beyond imagination in 1999 when he inherited the 18-game losing streak team that Hawaii almost considered dropping.

"From Hawaii's perspective, the importance of this game is very significant because it helps them with branding, national notoriety, and recruiting," says Mr. Carter.

Since there is no professional team in Hawaii, Jones says he knew he could bring in all football fans if he could start winning. "Our fans are cab drivers, cooks, maids, bus drivers, and cops," he says. "It's not like your normal college fans."

The desire to please fans inspired Kalilimoku and other Warriors to infuse native traditions into the team's rituals. The Warriors previously used a Polynesian Maori-language pregame chant known as the "haka," says Kalilimoku, who penned the lyrics. In a show of appreciation for Hawaiian cultures, the Warriors adopted the Hawaiian-language "ha'a" chant this year.

"Other states have a lot of different schools and a lot of different football teams," says Kalilimoku, "but as Hawaii, we have one team."

Pono Frank, an Oahu native and Hawaii prebusiness sophomore, has seen quite an evolution since the university's late-1990s football slump. He watched the Dec. 2 Bowl selection announcement show from his dorm and heard cheers from the residents. "No one cared about Hawaii football when I was growing up," says Mr. Frank. "Now, everyone follows it, and everyone is wearing green."

Paul Ayres, a Hawaii economics junior, went so far as to paint his body green and wear a grass hula skirt in the "Manoa Maniacs" student cheering section. "My buddies and I even lined up at 5 a.m. on the first day of season ticket sales so we could get front-row seats," he says.

The team is hoping that its stellar season will result in a financial boost. John McNamara, Hawaii's associate athletics director of external affairs, says undergraduates may soon be required to pay a $75 yearly tuition fee which would go to Hawaii's athletic department and allow students to attend athletic events for free. With about 14,000 undergraduates, the proposed fee could bring in more than $1 million per year. But the plan may never come to fruition, as students have previously voted down proposed mandatory athletic fees. For Kalilimoku, a bigger budget could mean better locker rooms, better fields, and an indoor practice facility for muddy days.

"I don't think most students are happy about it because it obviously means paying more money," says Mr. Ayres. "But I try to see the bigger picture. If it helps us go undefeated and brings in more money for the school, I'm all for it."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.