Leading the Way Back

There’s a new head coach and a new, more businesslike way of doing things for the UH football team. Success will come, coach Norm Chow says, if they work hard enough and play together

With his reputation as an offensive wizard, his years with Hollywood’s favorite college football team and his ability to relate to players 40 years his junior, one may expect UH football head coach Norm Chow to embrace some New Age theory of coaching that includes holistic approaches to knee injuries and feng shui rearrangements of the locker room.

You’d be mistaken.

Chow is more Vince Lombardi than Dick Vermeil, the noted Eagles and Rams coach known as much for his willingness to cry as for his talents running an offense. While not known in such unbending terms, Chow has some similarities to the famed Green Bay head coach. Lombardi was an offensive innovator in his time, emphasized execution and effort as keys to success, and was a longtime assistant whose ethnic heritage likely delayed his chances of becoming a head coach.

At practice, Chow roams amid the action with a look that is both studious and temperamental, showing a level of emotion that has been recently reserved for special teams and offensive line coaches. The famed long locks of previous seasons have been replaced with a trimmed, more businesslike look. The relaxed approach of NFL-style practices have been swapped in favor of old school hustle with little patience for a lack of focus. No one walks at practices except, says Chow, the old coach with bad knees. Plays happen in rapid succession. Practices end with stretching and calisthenics, and sometimes physical tests of endurance to the loud and occasional adult-themed inspirational messages by an assistant not pleased with an individual or group effort.

“Work, work, work. That’s all we know how to do,” says Chow to his players after a recent practice.

“Get a job!” yells out an assistant, continuing the theme — and sending the message that no job is safe.

Work occupies a prime spot in Chow’s vocabulary. It’s pretty much his answer to any test, whether it is proving he’s not too old for the job or competing against a formidable opponent who boasts better resources in every imaginable category. Yes, he was undermanned and a big underdog going into last Saturday’s season opener at No. 1-ranked USC, but he says the scoreboard won’t be the final measure of success or failure.

“If we know we’ve done the best we could, we will accept the consequences. What’s going to hurt is when we don’t do the best we can and then say we should have done this, we should have done that. That’s what we won’t accept. It never has been, never will be about anyone other than ourselves. If we are being the best we can be, no one is 38.5 points better than us.”

That commitment to only each other, as the team’s activities before and after practices at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam proved, is not entirely accurate. Chow, who has a doctorate in education, used the proximity to history to impart valuable lessons about commitment to his players and what it means to sacrifice for others. To a person, seeing bullet holes left on buildings by attacking Japanese fighter planes near the Hickam airfield made a serious impact on players and coaches, as did the visit to the Arizona Memorial a day later.

“You see the bullet holes and you can feel the spirituality of the place,” says receiver and offensive team captain Miah Ostrowski. “We learned a lot from the military about being focused, and it really affected every single one of us.”

“You could see how it affected them. It affected me. One-hundred-and-forty-some people died in that building in 1941.” says Chow. “It was very special.”

The history lesson was quite a bit different than the excitement they experienced on base a few hours earlier. At 5:30 a.m. the players were forced from their beds to the sounds of Navy and Air Force drill instructors pounding on doors and smashing trash cans before putting the players through a series of grueling exercises. Military units use such routines not just to ensure physical readiness, but to teach service men and women to perform at a moment’s notice, under great levels of stress.

“That was really fun,” says a smiling Chow. “We shocked the heck out of them. We pounded on the doors, got in their faces, and they worked them very well. It was a fun, fun morning, and we got what we wanted out of it.” The coaching staff weren’t the only people who enjoyed seeing the young student-athletes suddenly placed in an unfamiliar situation.

Air Force Master Sgt. Clete Toensing, who was one of the 13 airmen and sailors who volunteered for the covert mission, smiles while recalling the morning.

“We were donkey-kicking doors, getting everyone out of there. They were freaking out. The yelling and mass confusion is similar to basic training. It’s really in your face, and you’re going to know who your daddy is real quick,” he says, still grinning, before explaining how his current job doesn’t call for such training methods. “I’m not allowed to yell much anymore.”

Chow had been on fans’ short list for head coach for more than a decade, but contrary to popular belief, it was a job he never sought. That is not to say Chow was never interested — this became evident as his voice broke while speaking of family during his introductory press conference. He just had other things on his mind. Chow says the only dream job is the one you have, and he figures that looking for work takes focus away from the job at hand.

“I’ve never applied for a job in my life. I don’t even have a resume,” says Chow. “If you sit around just waiting for jobs, you won’t get anywhere. When jobs open in this profession, people know who they want to hire.”

This point was proven to him in 1999 when Chow says he was invited to interview for the vacant head coach position. From the beginning it was obvious June Jones was the real target.

“They called and I came over. That time it was very evident they already had someone in mind.”

So, Chow went back to work developing Heisman Trophy quarterbacks, national championship offenses and a reputation as one of college football’s best offensive coaches.

Chow takes over as head coach with a designation that hasn’t been seen on campus since Larry Price roamed the UH sidelines — he’s a local boy. And while such stature has made him one of the most popular hires in history, he knows his birth certificate doesn’t mean an unlimited amount of aloha should he and the Warriors not live up to expectations.

“This is a chance to be at home; it’s a chance to renew a lot of old friendships, but it’s also a huge, huge responsibility and a huge challenge. People expect things to happen, but it’s not going to happen unless you go to work and do the things you’ve got to do.”

The biggest pressure won’t come from fans or boosters but from the guy who says the responsibility of being a head coach cannot be fully appreciated until the job is taken. That became abundantly clear after three of his players — quarterback Cayman Shutter, punter Alex Dunnachie and linebacker Reid Tachibana — were arrested this summer for driving under the influence. All three were suspended from the team. “I don’t think until you sit here, as the 10 of us do every day to figure out a way to get our kids to do the best they can do to play against the competition we have to play against, can you appreciate how hard the job is. But it’s been unbelievable. It’s taken every ounce of energy we have. Thank goodness we have a terrific staff and the guys work real hard,” says Chow. “We’ll get it done together.”

Nathalie Walker photos