Call of DutyWhen Nick Rolovich accepted the position as University of Hawaii head football coach, it was not as a job, it was out of his sense of duty.
“I wasn’t trying to be a head coach anywhere else. I wanted to give back to Hawaii,” says Rolovich, who took on the position just after Thanksgiving last year. “I had a real long discussion with myself. If I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t going to come for the money. I had to come here willing to revive a program and revive a state, and I had to make sure I was mentally capable of doing that. If I wasn’t ready for this job and this thing fails, then I have really hurt the place that has given me so much in life — not just football, but my family, my friends and the great experiences here.”
And he knows about duty. He comes from a family of civil servants, both police and firemen, and even lost family friend Paul Sloan on 9/11 when the World Trade Center came down. Rolovich himself was on track to become a civil servant, having taken the police test, and was scheduled to take the fireman’s exam after the Nevada game in 2001.
“I was flying to Nevada with the team and afterward I was going to California with my family to take the test,” he recalls.
The date of the Nevada game was Sept. 15, 2001. Needless to say, it had to be rescheduled, but the fireman’s test never was, and a fortnight later local legendary quarterback Timmy Chang sustained a wrist injury against Rice that sidelined him for the season, thrusting Rolovich into the spotlight with one last chance to revive his football career.
Throwing the football always had been his passion. His earliest memories are of his grandfather taking him to Golden Gate Park in his native San Francisco and throwing the ball around, and sitting next to him watching Joe Montana on a black-and-white TV.
“As a kid, I remember lying in bed, throwing the football up and down to fall asleep, and setting up patio furniture in the backyard and throwing at it until I knocked it all down,” says Rolovich, whose family moved out to the suburbs of Novato when he was 11. “Some of them were the cheap plastic ones, so I blew the back out of a few of them! I always visualized myself within the football game as a quarterback.”
He had a standout career in high school, leading his team to two league championships. But he received no interest from Division I schools, so he attended City College of San Francisco and led his team to the league championship in 1999. Suddenly, the colleges were calling: Minnesota, Cal Berkeley, Marshall and a little outpost in the middle of the Pacific.
But along the way he lost sight of the fact that this paradise was earned and not a birthright. He was named the starter in 2000. He came out and lit up the scoreboard against Portland State, but in the next game against UTEP found himself benched at halftime. He spent the rest of that fall watching Timmy Chang, as Rolovich stood holding a clipboard on the wrong side of the white lines while the team scuffled to a 3-9 record.
“I turned 21 a month and a half after I got here,” says Rolovich, shaking his head at the memory. “I worked hard to go from unrecruited out of high school to the best junior college in America, and challenging myself and succeeding. I started to get almost entitled being here, and everything should go my way and celebrating, and not really focusing on what got me here. It got me benched, but it does make a good story to tell these guys.
“So I came in the next summer and concentrated more on the team and less on my postcard stereotypical Hawaiian vacation. I had a lot of fun, but it was taking me in the wrong direction.”
Despite his efforts to regain the starting job, he remained the backup and began planning for his post-football life, taking civil service tests and preparing to leave his football days for stories to tell his co-workers at pau hana time at the bar.
It was at this point that fate took over. A national tragedy kept him from his fireman’s test and an injury to the incumbent set him with one last chance to continue this lifelong dream — and this time, he did not let it slip away.
“I always knew he was a leader and a winner back then. I saw it in his play,” says his former coach June Jones. “The last seven games he played for me were about the most flawless games any quarterback has ever played. He was a real leader.
“His final game against BYU may be the best game that any quarterback has ever played. I saw his potential in coaching with what he did with Bryant Moniz. I knew he was going to be a real good player, but you never know what is going to happen once you leave. But Rolo took him to a real high level.”
UH fans may remember that BYU game as the highlight of his career, beating an archrival before a sold-out Aloha Stadium, Chad Owens with a kickoff and punt return for touchdowns, Rolovich throwing for eight touchdowns. But Rolovich has a different favorite memory of that season: It was halftime at SMU, the team was down and looking at starting the season 1-3.
“It sticks out because of how the team came together at halftime. Something special happened,” says Rolovich. “Chris Brown and La‘anui Correa were faces I can remember. It was at that point we were either going back down the road to where we were the year before or we were going to start rolling.”
They came back to win it in overtime on national TV, and a jubilant Rolovich let his emotions get the best of him when the microphone was thrust in his face and he let loose an F-bomb for the whole country to hear (upon returning to the Islands, longtime booster Don Murphy presented him with a lei of Irish Spring soap).
The team would lose only once more under Rolovich, and his thoughts of life after football faded as his career path opened up before him — pro ball in Europe and the Arena League, coaching quarterbacks here at UH and in Nevada, and eventually the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to revive the team that had set him on his career. It won’t be easy, to which his former coach can attest, with games against Michigan, Cal and Arizona looming on the schedule.
“The honeymoon is getting ready to be over as they play these first three games,” says Jones. “I wish that he had time to get everything in place before he plays those type of games, but that’s not the hand he’s been dealt. Hopefully, they will hang together and come together as they go through it and get a little something going.”
For his part, Rolovich acknowledges it will not be easy, but complaining about difficulty is not in his DNA.
“At least there is a hill there to climb. It’s not a challenge, it’s an opportunity,” says Rolovich. “When we have a chance to make Sunday mornings better for everyone in Hawaii because of how you played on Saturday night, it is pretty special. Here you are, not getting envelopes with cash; you are getting ‘hellos’ and high fives and kids smiling at you. That is the worth of Aloha.”
After years of heartache and perceived nonchalance from the Norm Chow administration, it is as much about winning hearts and minds as it is about winning football games.
“There is a generation of kids who have been frustrated over the past few years. After the high of the Sugar Bowl and then winning the WAC championship in 2010, people have a negative feeling about the program’s state,” says Rolovich.
“What we are trying to do in the community is to give instead of taking. I don’t want to trick people into thinking we are going to (make appearances) because we want something out of you. Rather, we wanted to meet the fans, help out if we could, and if that brings a few more people to the stadium, that is great. But it is more for our guys who have been stuck in the dorms all summer — our guys getting to feel the love, encouragement and the starving for success on the football field sent a strong message to our guys. If all we do is just ask, ask, ask for help and don’t give anything back, then people get tired of it, especially in Hawaii.”
Greeting fans and handing out T-shirts to kids is nice, but what Rolovich is hearing the most from fans is that, win or lose, they want to be proud of how this team competes.
“What I have heard from multiple fans is they don’t even care about the record, there are fans who do and I understand that, but what the fans want to see is the boys fight like warriors till the very end, not make selfish penalties, not make dumb decisions off the field that bring a bad light to the program and Hawaii in general.
“They want to be proud of the way our guys play, and if we are 0-4 going into the bye week, we still get a clean slate going into conference play and we will see the difference we have made in these guys’ mindset, ‘is each other important, or is it still about me getting into the NFL or getting my stats,’ and that doesn’t ever work. It is how we play that should give people hope, and if we play that way, it will lead to better success on the field.”
Perhaps the biggest departure from the past two administrations is Rolovich’s infusion of fun that he gives the team. He credits his father for his wry sense of humor and elaborate pranks. Perhaps his most famous thus far was the April Fools’ Day Massacre, where he declared war on the team on the practice field with an all-out water balloon battle that was so outrageous it made its way to SportsCenter.
“I have thought about doing this for a long time, but I couldn’t do it because the head coach didn’t want it or see value in it. But now there aren’t very many people to tell me no, so I can just do it!” says Rolovich with a big laugh.
He knows it is important to find a balance in his relationship with the team.
“It shows the kids we really care about them and we have a human side. I have had several players tell me that they can’t tell when I am joking or serious, but they can tell when I am pissed. I try to be very honest and genuine in my feelings toward them, but when I am pissed, because I am honest with them, everyone freezes and sees what’s happening.”
Finding balance is now a mantra in his family life as well, as being a father of four is a challenge all its own. But adding the responsibilities of a first-time Division I head coach on top of it is akin to spinning plates on your fingers while riding a unicycle in a tornado. That’s where his wife, Analea, a Maui girl, saves the day for him.
“Thank god I have a good wife. She handled the four
kids, who are 8 and under, whether in Reno shoveling snow and putting the kids in three schools in eight months,” says Rolovich, who couch-surfed for his first seven months out here to save money to buy their home in Manoa. “But it helps teach them resilience, and having the home in Manoa makes it so I can get home whenever I can.”
The season starts on the road with the team playing Cal in Australia in two weeks, then traveling almost 10,000 miles to play No. 9 Michigan Wolverines in the Big House in Ann Arbor. But before the grueling start, the team will be supported Wednesday (Aug. 17) at the annual Pigskin Pigout fund-raiser at Murphy’s Bar & Grill. Besides raising money for the program, it gives the public one last chance to chat with the coach before they begin the new era in UH football. And even if Rolovich cannot pull off a miracle start to his career as their leader, he hopes that, at the very least, he can instill in his team the sense of duty they owe to the community.
“It is such a privilege to be a part of this program,” says Rolovich. “Going to school — a lot of them for free — to not take advantage of that, or at least respect it, to be on time for class and workouts, to keep the locker room clean, because that teacher, that strength coach, those janitors, they are all working and providing a service to these players. It is OK to be in class early, it’s OK to pick up somebody else’s rubbish — it is not that hard a thing to do if your mindset is right.”