‘Retro Night’ needs spirit of past UH defense


HONOLULU — Saturday’s University of Hawaii football game vs. San Diego State has been billed as “Retro Night,” with the team scheduled to wear classic green-and-white “Rainbow” jerseys.

It is a new marketing idea for UH and has some potential, since many of the Rainbow Warriors’ hardcore fans have positive memories of the team’s glory years of the late 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. The theme may not only fill up a few otherwise empty seats, but also raise much-needed revenue from a limited supply of retro merchandise (available online at uhrainbowtique.com).

There also is some irony to this, when you consider that one of the reasons the program changed its nickname from “Rainbows” to “Warriors” was the perception that the Rainbow image was too soft compared to the more macho and rugged Warrior.

But that decision, prompted by former coach June Jones shortly after his first season (1999), now raises the age-old question: Do the clothes make the man? Or does the man make the clothes?

The Rainbow-clad defensive units of the retro days certainly were anything but soft: guys including Tom Tuinei, Blane Gaison, the Noga brothers (Falaniko, Pete and Al), David Maeva and Maa Tanuvasa epitomized toughness and fearlessness and the “Warrior” spirit — regardless of whether it was part of the official nickname.

In fact, the rough, stubborn, hard-hitting defense was a central part of the program’s overall identity during those years.

“Hawaii was somewhat of a blue-collar state, and the fans respected toughness,” Bob Wagner, the former UH head coach and defensive coordinator from that era, told The Honolulu Advertiser in 2009. “It was a different mentality then, and we had to play BYU when they were leading the nation in offense. But we would hold them to 13 points, 18 points.”

In those days opponents really had to earn their touchdowns against the Rainbows, especially after entering the red zone, where the defense always seemed to step it up a notch.

The unit always seemed much smaller but quicker than the opponents: Niko Noga was a 220-pound nose guard as a true freshman on the All-Western Athletic Conference first team; Maeva was 6-feet, 205 pounds when he made the All-WAC first team as a sophomore. Mike Tresler and Tony Pang-Kee were 5-8, 180-pound defensive backs who were named to the All-WAC second team.

But they all could hit and put a hurt on opposing quarterbacks, running backs and receivers.

“We approached defense aggressively; people talk about having weapons on offense, but we talked about having weapons on defense,” said Wagner, who later became athletic director at Kamehameha-Hawaii.

That approach – and certainly the execution – seems to be mostly missing from this year’s defense.

There have been many futile moments in this 0-9 season, but perhaps the most frustrating is watching opponents cruise into the end zone untouched. Or seeing them break off big plays of 30, 40 or 50 yards or more. Or continually convert on third down.

Points and yardage that used to be so hard to come by for opponents now come often, and often with relative ease.

The Rainbow Warriors defense, once a source of pride in a bygone era, now ranks 108th in the nation out of 123 Division I-A teams in total defense (470.9 yards per game), 110th in scoring defense (37.3 points per game) and pass defense (273.1 ypg), 98th in rushing defense (197.8 ypg), 79th in third-down conversions allowed (41.2 percent), tied for 105th in red zone defense and is third-from-last in the country in time of possession and fourth-from-last in turnover margin (minus-12).

All of this is particularly disappointing because the defensive front was supposed to be the strongest unit on the team, and the entire defense played so well and looked so promising in the season opener vs. Southern California.

In fairness, injuries have been a factor as true freshman prize recruit Kennedy Tulimasealii missed the first two games with a torn medial collateral ligament, fellow defensive tackle Saui Matagiese sat out last Saturday’s game at Navy with a sprained knee and nose tackle Moses Samia left the Navy game with a high ankle sprain in the third quarter.

The offense also has contributed to the turnover margin and time of possession, often putting the defense in bad situations.

But all that aside, there still are way too many missed tackles, too many defenders out of position, not enough pressure on the quarterback, too many penalties at inopportune times.

Seeing these things happen while UH dons the retro “Rainbow” jerseys on Saturday would be especially painful, because it is not how we remember the green-and-white defenses of the past.

There are no Noga brothers, Tuineis, Maevas, Treslers or Pang-Kees on this year’s Hawaii’s defense. But 10 of the starters who helped limit USC to 364 total yards, 23 points (one Trojans touchdown came on a pick-6) and 3 of 14 third-down conversions are expected to start or play a lot on Saturday, so there should be no reason to think they cannot revert back to that kind of performance.

After all, what better time for UH to go Back to the Future than “Retro Night?”