Hawaii and Mountain West officials say Rockne Freitas was the key to the Warriors' potential move
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 20, 2010
When a handful of University of Hawaii officials gathered before reporters, TV cameras and microphones Thursday night to announce the expectation of joining the Mountain West Conference, president M.R.C. Greenwood summoned vice president Rockne Freitas to join them.
Freitas, standing back in the crowd gathered in the Bachman Hall lobby, initially groaned an "Ah ..." waved his hand in protest and attempted to retreat deeper into the background.
A fitting response, it turned out, from a humble man who had labored in the shadows for nearly six weeks to bring the Warriors to the table with the MWC.
No easy task when you are a 6-foot-6, 270-pound former All-Pro NFL offensive tackle.
Yet, interviews with a variety of UH, Mountain West and other officials in the wake of the stunning announcement cast the 65-year old Freitas as the key figure in the back-channel operation that could redirect the school's athletic future.
"With (UH President) M.R.C. Greenwood and my approval, Rockne played a very important part in reaching out to the MWC and Commissioner (Craig) Thompson," Board of Regents chairman Howard Karr wrote in an e-mail to the Star-Advertiser.
Or, as one staffer tweeted to a friend when the announcement came: "Rock is the Man!"
For his part, all Freitas would say yesterday was: "It is a team effort, and I like to use the metaphor of a canoe. Every canoe paddler has a distinct role that he or she fulfills to make the canoe go fast. I was, maybe the No. 4 paddler. Clearly, unequivocally, the steersperson (president) sets the pace."
Freitas, who had been chancellor of Hawaii Community College for nearly six years, was named to the just-created position of vice president for student affairs and university and community relations for UH in May. As if that title weren't long enough, he was also tasked to "work on special key projects."
When Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada announced their departures from the WAC this summer, Greenwood, who hadn't had much of a finger in athletics heretofore, came to appreciate the depth of the community's concern over the fate of the athletic program.
What she had initially described as "a Manoa (campus) issue" to a booster had taken on considerably more import.
Karr and board secretary Keith Amemiya, former executive director of the Hawaii High School Athletic Association, are said to have driven home the urgency of the situation.
So much so, apparently, that Greenwood asked Freitas to suggest a course of action in case other efforts weren't fruitful.
Freitas, who had served as associate athletic director under Stan Sheriff in the mid-1980s, had helped Sheriff draw up what they had envisioned as a 15-year plan to move UH toward the goal of Pac-10 membership. A key component of which had been enlisting a well-connected intermediary to help build bridges.
Freitas moved on to another position and Sheriff died in 1993.
But this time, Freitas had the ear of Nevada-Las Vegas president Neal Smatresk, vice chair of the MWC Board of Directors.
Smatresk said he and Freitas are "old friends" from when he was vice chancellor for academic affairs at UH between 2004 and '07. "We had an opportunity to discuss a number of issues involving academics and Native Hawaiian issues and I greatly appreciated his insights. Of course, we would talk sports from time to time."
Said Smatresk, "I root for Hawaii as long as they are not playing UNLV."
Smatresk said he also believed UH would be a valuable addition to the conference and took UH's case to MWC members and commissioner Thompson, who league sources said met with both of them in Las Vegas at least once.
By that time, the MWC was interested in UH but, due to travel and cost concerns, only as a prospective football member. It was a situation that suited UH, where athletic director Jim Donovan had already been in talks with the Big West about a home for UH's other sports in case the Warriors chose to become an independent.
"Craig," said someone familiar with his style, "likes to meet face-to-face and keep things out of the public eye."
UH promised to do its part and limited the number of people with knowledge of the ongoing operation to perhaps fewer than 10 and even then under the strictest of security.
Meanwhile, Greenwood buttonholed some MWC peers. As recently as a week ago at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities annual meeting in Dallas, she talked to others, including the Wyoming president, who was on a panel she chaired.
By that point things had begun to move swiftly, a straw vote had reportedly been taken showing strong support for UH and Thompson scheduled a conference call for Thursday morning.
When the UH Regents met on Maui, staffers said Greenwood got a call from Thompson saying he'd been given the go-ahead to conclude negotiations with UH. And some Regents high-fived news they hadn't heretofore been party to.
That evening the announcement was made in Bachman Hall and Freitas could no longer hide in the shadows.