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UH’s big dance is called the schedule shuffle

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The NCAA Tournament is called the “big dance” but not just for the reasons you might think.

At the Final Four this past week there was another dance of sorts taking place around the men’s basketball games, one that plays out and, hopefully, pays off, for the University of Hawaii and Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic long after Connecticut cut down the nets Monday night.

One for which it has not been uncommon to send candy, flowers and even notes of affection afterward.

It is called the scheduling waltz, and the Final Four — in this case, Houston — was the place to be. In between checking out actual and potential job openings, catching up with rumors and old friends, coaches and officials do manage to get in a bit of important work by filling their schedules.

UH’s Gib Arnold was there, we’re told, trusty Blackberry in hand, trying to plug schedule pukas, near and far. So, too, was David Matlin of ESPN Regional Television.

Or, as they have supposedly come to refer to Matlin at these things, “the guy from Diamond Head” for his operation of the Christmas-time tournament.

Not by coincidence will you usually find them attired in aloha shirts and smiles.

How successful they were will be told largely in future scheduling since Diamond Head has its 2011 tournament and about half of the 2012 field completed, while UH has very little remaining to fill for this year. But for building box office it is an essential mission.

Once upon a time when the Rainbow Classic was the premier in-season eight-team tournament and nickels didn’t have to be pinched so tightly, UH and its sponsor would rent a hospitality suite at the Final Four and throw open the doors. Nicknamed “Riley’s Rainbow Room” or “Club Rainbow” in honor of its genial host, then-UH head coach Riley Wallace, it was a place with a purpose. When athletic directors and coaches would stop by for a handful of macadamia nuts, a cold beverage or a shell lei, they’d get a handshake and sales pitch.

On the wall would be a list of openings for future Rainbow Classics and, well, if none of those worked, it would be, “Hey, coach, how about a regular-season game around Thanksgiving? We have blue skies and beach weather in mid-December, you know.”

What UH had to sell mostly, however, was the Hawaii exemption, a sought-after NCAA provision that allowed visiting schools to play games here that did not count against their NCAA-mandated maximum. It was such a good deal that others beseeched the NCAA for similar terms and a continent-circling holiday industry has unfolded.

With the proliferation of TV-backed tournaments from Cancun to the Bahamas, the landscape has changed and schools have their choice of tournaments in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and beyond. Where Hawaii once competed with just the Great Alaska Shootout, there are more than 30 exempted tournaments bidding for up-and-coming teams and marquee schools.

Now it takes more than suite talking. It is personal relationships and word of mouth from satisfied customers, such as 2010 Diamond Head Classic champion Butler, that matter most.

Of course, Matlin isn’t above following up conversations with a much-prized shipment from Big Island Candies or a batch of Kona coffee, too.

Reach Ferd Lewis at

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