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What in Jack Burns’ name is going on up at UH?

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It is probably a good thing that the late Gov. John A. Burns isn’t among us today to see the precarious position of his beloved University of Hawaii.

How to explain to him, for example, that the athletic program close to his heart is seriously in debt and largely without options as the college athletic landscape undergoes a seismic shift?

How to rationalize that the Western Athletic Conference he painstakingly lobbied to get UH into no longer has even one member school he would remember?

How to bring up that Boise State, which was a junior college when he began efforts to get UH into the WAC, is moving on to the Mountain West Conference after seven conference titles in eight years to pursue its national championship hopes.

Worst of all, perhaps, the level of opposition that Gov. Burns (1962-74) had so firmly sought to have UH rise above might soon be its peers. If it isn’t already.

If the WAC were to end up taking on Portland State, Cal Poly and UC Davis, how different would that be from the days of playing Cal Western, Humboldt State, New Mexico Highlands and Whitworth?

"I believe he’d be pretty sad," said his son, Jim Burns.

The late governor, it will be remembered, huffed and puffed and pushed UH into major college athletics by the force of his vision, personality, dynamism. He demanded a school that would set a standard for the state with its law school, medical school and other areas on campus. And he believed athletics played a big part.

Just as he charted a new course for the state politically and socially, so, too, did he map one for sports. "Show me a university that is financially secure and I’ll show you its athletic foundation; show me a championship team and I’ll show you a student body academically driven by the same excellence," Gov. Burns said.

He was determined to do away with what he saw as "a subtle inferiority of spirit" in the young state and believed athletics could help set the example.

So he buttonholed fellow governors at conferences, got in the ears of senators and relentlessly campaigned for a place for UH in the WAC. He commanded a series of UH presidents and athletic directors to take up his vision and aim for the WAC, where he saw schools "of comparative size" and resources.

To build a foundation, Burns decreed that a booster club, ‘Ahahui Koa Anuenue, be started and put the weight of his office behind getting it off the ground. He saw the need for a suitable facility and got Aloha Stadium on the drawing board.

UH went Division I in 1975, the same year Aloha Stadium opened. Four years later, UH was accepted into the WAC.

But in recent years there has been nobody at Washington Place or Bachman Hall who subscribed to his vision. Nobody, certainly, who has been willing to run with it in the halls of power.

UH athletics lately has been more a photo op than a priority. Proclamations, yes; pledges and planning, not so much.

With what has been going on these past few weeks, "I think he (Gov. Burns) would wonder who is going to be the spearhead before it is too late?" Jim Burns said.

A good question, indeed.

Reach Ferd Lewis at


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