On Christmas Eve, the nationally 24th-ranked University of Hawaii football team goes after its 11th victory of the season when it faces Tulsa in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl at Aloha Stadium.
As the Warriors prepare, assistant head coach Rich Miano can’t help but marvel at the turn of events that has seen an unheralded team rise to win a share of the Western Athletic Conference championship, and the school not only survive the WAC’s sudden and turbulent restructuring but actually emerge for the better with an invitation to join the Mountain West Conference.
Sports is always about surprises, but few could have imagined this — except perhaps Miano. As anyone who follows UH football knows, improbability is his story as well.
After one year of football at Kaiser High, Miano walked on at UH. The rest, as they say, is ridiculous: He would earn three letters as a defensive back, winning all-WAC first-team honors as a senior in 1984, then play 11 seasons in the NFL before returning home to become a coach at UH.
Perhaps nothing sums up his never-say-die career in football better than his rookie season with the New York Jets. Miano was a sixth-round pick in a 12-round draft. That year, team owners decided to trim rosters from 49 players to 45 and the U.S. Football League was in collapse, flooding the market with available players.
"I report to camp and there are 120 guys out there and I’m sixth string," Miano says. "I remember the first week we were in a dormitory and almost the whole floor got cut. I was like the only one left."
Miano got the word that he was gone on the final day of camp — the day before his birthday.
"I get home that night, and there were only three TV stations at the time, and they were all reporting that I had gotten cut," he says. "But the next day my dad woke me up and said, ‘Happy birthday, son. The Houston Oilers just picked you up.’"
A couple of hours later, the Jets phoned to let him know they were reclaiming him.
"They made me fly back that day because they had a game with the Raiders in Los Angeles," Miano says. "I flew something like 18,000 miles that weekend, and The New York Times wrote a story about how even pilots aren’t allowed to fly that much. I flew back to New York, then to Los Angeles, then back to New York.
"But in our second game I had two interceptions and now I’m leading the American Football Conference in interceptions 14 days after getting cut. Amazing."
QUESTION: In the preseason polls, this (UH) team was picked to finish near the bottom of the WAC. As someone who knows something about overachieving, has the team’s performance surprised you in any way?
ANSWER: As a coach, you always want to be optimistic about your opportunities every year, and you want to think that you can win every game — even though things don’t always work out that way.
I will say this: Coming into this year, we as coaches knew we had tremendous, skilled athletes and that (quarterback) Bryant Moniz was going to be really, really good — much better than most people probably anticipated. We also knew the receivers and the running backs had a lot of potential, so if the line could hold together and come along — and that was what we thought could take some time — then we could be an explosive offense.
Defensively, we were excited about actually having guys coming back because the previous year we had 11 new starters. I had never seen that happen at any level of football, where you had to replace the entire defensive team. So we knew we’d be better defensively, but again, there are so many intangibles that you can’t control. So while the pundits and prognosticators have been surprised by how the team has performed, it hasn’t been a surprise to us. We’re extremely pleased, but we’re not surprised.
Q: As a player, your UH teams competed in the old WAC. What’s your take on renewing those rivalries as the newest member of the Mountain West (Conference)?
A: I think about our fan base, the loyal fans from the ’70s and ’80s, when this program was just starting to get going. We had some great games against teams like BYU, of course, and Air Force and Wyoming and San Diego State. … It was a great time to be a football player at UH, and I think it was a really exciting time for the sports fans in the state.
Now we’ve come full circle … different name, same teams. I think it’s a great conference. I really believe we had to (leave the WAC) from a football and an Athletics Department standpoint. This gives us credibility and stability. I think the old fans will appreciate the rivalries we’ll be renewing and enjoy continuing the rivalries we now have with Fresno State and Nevada and Boise State.
I also think it was important to the state that we remained a Division-I program. I really don’t believe the people of Hawaii want or would support a I-AA program, and right now we have a saturated WAC that seems to be not adding … you know … I’m sure (Denver, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State will) be quality members eventually; they could be the next Boise States and Nevadas that were I-AA at one time. But I really believe our program needs to be in a strong Division-I conference at this time.
Q: What was going through your mind during the speculation about what UH should do after Fresno State and Nevada joined Boise State in leaving the WAC?
A: I think there was tremendous trepidation in not knowing if this program was going to exist anymore on the level it had.
As a coach, obviously, you have to be thinking if this league doesn’t become stronger and we have no possibility of moving, everything from attendance to television rights to sponsorships … it could possibly be the end of everything we have here.
As an assistant coach you’re always on a one-year contract anyway, but this was more important for me because I bleed green. This is my home. This is my alma mater. This is where I’ve worked for the last 12 years. Even as a professional football player, I always wanted to eventually come back and coach and help the youth of Hawaii.
I also thought back to those doomsday scenarios during the Fred vonAppen days (UH head coach, 1996-98), when people were asking, "Do we really want a Division-I team?"
I just couldn’t see how that would succeed.
Q: So you believe there was real danger that the program could have disappeared?
A: Oh, most definitely. And you have to give credit to the powers that be — the president (M.R.C. Greenwood), (Vice President) Rockne Freitas, (Board of Regents Executive Administrator) Keith Amemiya, (Athletic Director) Jim Donovan, the chancellor (Virginia Hinshaw) — all the people who made this thing work.
It was getting scary, especially in recruiting. It was tough, because you had to sell the recruits on scenarios. Other (teams’) coaches were telling the kids: "Well, look who’s in their conference. Look at who they’ll be playing. Are they ever going to be on ESPN again? Are they still going to be relevant?" So we’re out there and we’re having to create these scenarios where maybe we’re going to the Mountain West or maybe we’re going independent and be able to play whoever we want. So the timing (of joining the Mountain West) couldn’t have been better.
Q: How has the UH football program changed from when you played?
A: One thing is that when I was a senior, our average attendance was 47,000 … and I’m not saying we haven’t been able to captivate the fans as much because I think they’re still there. It’s just that they have a lot of different avenues available to view us. But that (2008) Sugar Bowl year … it was something else, something we haven’t seen since maybe the Fabulous Five in the way it just captivated the whole community.
Back in my days we played some big teams like USC, and we had a couple of big victories, but we didn’t get to play in bowl games. There wasn’t a proliferation of bowl games, so unless you went 11-1 or 10-2, you weren’t going anywhere.
But this has always been a successful program. It’s had ups and downs, but right now, if you’re a recruit, why wouldn’t you want to come here? It’s the most beautiful place on the Earth, we have great facilities, great fans, we’re going to be playing great competition in our new conference.
But it’s our job — it’s Coach (Greg) McMackin’s job, it’s our job as assistant coaches — to be the stewards of this program and continue to move it forward.
People think getting to a BCS bowl game is once in a lifetime, but why couldn’t we do it again? Boise State’s done it. Utah’s done it. If we had won that (Sugar Bowl) game, it would have transcended anything that happened before in Hawaii sports. People would still be talking about it 20, 30, 50 years down the line.
But we didn’t get it done, so the way I look at it, we still have some unfinished business.