In between the hula dancing, beach-going, bikini watching, water-park frolicking, video-game playing, Waikiki touristing and copious eating, there’s a fairly important football game that needs preparing.
Fresno State middle linebacker Jeffrey Allison does.
“It’s tempting to go hang out on the beach, but at the same time you’ve got to realize you’re here on a business trip,” Allison said as the Bulldogs tune up for Sunday’s Hawaii Bowl against Houston. “There’s time to have fun, and there’s time to work. You’ve got to learn how to separate those times.”
Which isn’t as simple as Allison makes it sound.
Many a college football team, including some Fresno State squads of the past, have fallen victim to the distractions of Hawaii. Allowed themselves to be swept away by the surf and reddened by the sun.
Only one Hawaii Bowl in the past decade, and three in the game’s 15-year history, have been decided by less than a touchdown. As Bulldogs fans who suffered through 43-10 (Southern Methodist in 2012) and 30-6 (Rice in 2014) can attest.
Finding the right balance between work and play in this tropical paradise is a tricky task for any coaching staff.
Fresno State’s team hotel is the Moana Surfrider, located on world-famous Waikiki Beach and steps away from the Pacific Ocean. Yet every day the Bulldogs are tugged from this seductive scene. The 3-mile drive to the University of Hawaii takes about 15 minutes, thanks to heavy traffic during the busy holiday season.
Although Fresno State is using Hawaii’s practice field, the facility has been infused with Bulldogs imagery. Upon entering the field, players pass by a red sign temporarily attached to the chain-link fence.
In large white letters it reads: “Play snap to whistle. Concentrate. Execute. Win.”
How much concentrating is going on? Quarterback Marcus McMaryion insists plenty.
“We’ve got two hours to lock in for football and then have the rest of the day to kind of watch film here and there and just enjoy ourselves,” McMaryion said. “Guys are flying around energetic. The last two practices have been really good.”
Lunch is served immediately following practice. In addition to trainers and the video crew, Fresno State brought its own nutritionist to the islands to ensure players are eating healthy. (She was a little dismayed when Hawaii Bowl officials dropped off boxes of fast-food hamburgers and chicken sandwiches without her knowledge.)
Food can serve other purposes, too. For example, the Bulldogs had a midnight curfew on their first night in Hawaii. However, the coaching staff ordered pizzas delivered to every player’s hotel room at 10 p.m. (The curfew was shortened to 11 p.m. later in the week. On Saturday night, it’ll be 9.)
“Everyone was back in their rooms early (for pizza),” one player told me during an illicit, unauthorized interview (i.e. a brief chat at one of the many ABC convenience stores dotting Waikiki).
Besides practicing and eating, there’s time for a little fun. The Bulldogs visited a water park following Thursday’s practice and are scheduled for Dave and Buster’s on Saturday. Players who didn’t make the trip to Hawaii in November toured Pearl Harbor, and a handful will visit a children’s hospital.
The off-the-field activities have their purpose, too, none more so than Wednesday’s luau at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel attended by both teams.
No doubt everyone enjoyed the hula girls and fire dancing. But when coaches and dignitaries were invited on stage to participate, the room erupted in hoots and cheers.
“I think everyone was mostly excited when Coach (Jeff) Tedford, Coach (Jamar) Cain and Coach (Kirby) Moore got up there,” McMaryion said. “Guys were going crazy. That was definitely the highlight of the luau.”
Which only underscores another benefit of the bowl experience. Watching coaches (as well as Fresno State President Joseph Castro and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson) sway their hips to gentle Polynesian music is great for team bonding and morale.
In Hawaiian, it’s called “ohana.” Meaning extended family, not just blood relations, that are bound together and work in harmony.
Certainly, Sunday’s final score will be a significant factor in how the week is perceived. The Bulldogs desperately want to get to 10 wins and snap a six-game bowl losing streak. But some memories will fade before others.
“At the end of the day we’re not going to remember every play and every touchdown,” McMaryion said. “But probably 98 percent of us will remember Tedford getting up on that stage dancing with Coach Cain and Coach Moore. It was definitely a good experience.”
FRESNO STATE VS. HOUSTON
Sunday: 5:30 p.m. at Aloha Stadium (50,000) in Honolulu
Records: Bulldogs 9-4, 7-1 Mountain West; Cougars 7-4, 5-3 American Athletic
TV/radio: ESPN/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600).
Of note: The Bulldogs make a third trip to the Hawaii Bowl since 2012, having lost to Southern Methodist in 2012 and Rice in 2014. Houston is a bigger challenge. The Cougars opened with a road victory against a Power 5 team (Arizona). Houston has the Outland Trophy winner in defensive tackle Ed Oliver (14.5 tackles for loss; 5.5 sacks). A big-play offense is led by D’Eriq King, who in the past three games has completed 73 percent of his passes for 832 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, averaging 11.2 yards per pass attempt.