Hawaii football coach Nick Rolovich is on the phone, talking about the rivalry with Fresno State and the 50th all-time meeting between the Bulldogs and Rainbow Warriors on Saturday evening at Aloha Stadium.
For a few minutes, the personable 38-year-old answers my questions. Rolovich talks about his own winning touchdown pass in 2001 (“That was a great win for us.”), the following year’s alleged screwdriver-chucking incident at Bulldog Stadium (more on that later) and his respect for former Bulldogs coach Pat Hill for entering the Hawaii locker room to congratulate players after a tough loss (“I think he’s an unbelievably class act.”).
But now Rolovich has something he wants to tell me. Something the second-year coach needs to get off his chest.
“One thing I don’t like about Fresno, and I’ll be honest with you, Marek: I don’t like the elbows on the bulldog,” Rolovich says. “For some reason, I just don’t like those elbows.”
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Elbows? The ones belonging to the logo on Fresno State’s helmets?
“Yeah,” Rolovich replies with a laugh. “I don’t like the elbows.”
O-kay. So what about the elbows don’t you like?
“Ha,” he answers. “I don’t know. They’re just … odd.”
After hanging up the phone, I flipped open the Fresno State media guide and took a closer-than-usual look at the bulldog in the logo, specifically his elbows. Hmm. They do jut out a little, but then so does the real-life version.
Ah, rivalries. Sometimes there’s no explaining what sets one side off about the other. Take Fresno State and Hawaii. The two schools aren’t really close geographically – Hawaii not being geographically close to anywhere besides an ocean – and yet the Bulldogs have only played San Jose State (81 times) and San Diego State (57 times) more often in their 96-season history.
For Hawaii, the 50 games against Fresno State (as of Saturday) are the most they’ve played against any opponent. (The Bulldogs lead the all-time series 26-22-1.)
Which is something Rolovich, a Bay Area native and Hawaii quarterback from 2000-01, takes to heart.
“To me it’s very personal because I’ve been involved with so many of them,” he says. “Fresno is not too far from where I was born and raised, and over the years there have been a lot of great Fresno teams and players.
“I don’t know. It just seems whenever Hawaii and Fresno get together, there’s always a little extra juice.”
At no time were things more juicy than from the late ’90s to the mid 2000s, when Hill’s Bulldogs battled June Jones’ Rainbow Warriors. The games were always physical, often decided the Western Athletic Conference title, and sometimes the hostilities spread beyond the playing field.
Fresno State has not always been treated with aloha when traveling to the islands. Who can forget the time when the Bulldogs got accused of “trashing” the chartered plane that carried them to Honolulu?
(The airline employee’s claims turned out to be false, or at least highly misleading. But that didn’t prevent the Associated Press from penning a story.)
Or that time Fresno State stayed on the north shore and the police escort they’d been expecting to ease the rush-hour traffic for a Friday night game didn’t show up. And when the team buses finally arrived at the stadium, an attendant tried to charge them for parking.
It just seems whenever Hawaii and Fresno get together, there’s always a little extra juice.
Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich
Certainly, nothing tops the infamous screwdriver incident from 2002 when Jones claimed a Bulldogs fans threw a tool at him while leaving the field following a 31-21 Hawaii victory. Fresno State ended up apologizing, which gave the claim legitimacy it perhaps didn’t deserve.
“I’m still looking for the original story of the screwdriver throw,” Rolovich says. “That took it to a whole new level. Whether that’s true or false, I don’t know.”
That’s when I told Rolovich something I’d been holding onto (at least in a column) for a while.
I wrote the original screwdriver story, the one who interviewed Jones (and even called him back the next day to make him repeat what happened), and I think he’s full of it.
“Oh,” Rolovich says, sounding a bit disappointed. “It’s a good urban legend, then.”
Both programs have endured recent struggles, which may have sapped some juice from the rivalry. Last year, though, Hawaii experienced a resurgence going 7-7 in Year 1 under Rolovich. This year it’s Fresno State’s turn with the Bulldogs sitting 6-3 in Year 1 under Jeff Tedford.
“There’s belief and unity on that football team,” Rolovich says about the Bulldogs. “That’s the No. 1 thing that stands out.”
Just not the only thing. The Hawaii coach brings up a play from the fourth quarter against Nevada, when Bulldogs linebacker James Bailey leaped along the sideline at a pass sailing out of bounds in an attempt to tip the ball back to his teammates.
“That right there showed me this team is full of critical thinkers at critical times trying to do the right thing,” Rolovich says. “That just told me a lot about what was coming down in a month and a half with Fresno.
“If they’re doing things like that, that means they’re so alert and so into the game that they’re going to pose an even bigger challenge.”
Plus, there’s this: The Bulldogs will be wearing their white helmets Saturday night, the ones with the elbows Rolovich finds so objectionable.
Anything for a rival.