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Oh, poi, what a football team
Richard W. Johnston
December 13, 1971
Nebraska ended the season with a trip to Hawaii, but not even the islands' diversions kept the Cornhuskers from their appointed tasks
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December 13, 1971

Oh, Poi, What A Football Team

Nebraska ended the season with a trip to Hawaii, but not even the islands' diversions kept the Cornhuskers from their appointed tasks

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Military analogies with sport usually are ridiculous, but it is fair to say that in November the citizens of Honolulu were more apprehensive over the impending invasion by the No. 1-ranking Nebraska Cornhuskers than their fathers would have been if given advance notice of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, just 30 years ago this week. In those days everybody knew the Los Angeles police force—unassisted—could knock out the entire Japanese military establishment. Nobody was about to underestimate Nebraska.

Week after week, as the Huskers marched inexorably toward what may be their second straight national championship and the University of Hawaii lost to the likes of Pacific and Fresno and Long Beach State, the Honolulu papers brimmed with dire predictions and volunteer game plans. One columnist suggested the Rainbows fly to Lincoln and take the field Dec. 4 shouting: "We thought the game was here!" The Star-Bulletin's syndicated cartoonist, Corky Trinidad, offered a kahuna (a priestly Hawaiian witch doctor) who ordered: "Return the monarchy and secede from the union before game time." Other proposals that saw print: a 22-man defense: an 11-man defense, one man to be armed with a rifle; and a power blackout in the area. In an earthy bar in Moilili, a 300-pound Hawaiian subway alum downed his bottle of Primo beer and declared: "If we gel ball mo' bettah we put some wahines in line then somebody sure to score!" On Nov. 18 Sports-writer Bill Kwon wrote: "Do you realize it's only 16 more days until the Nebraska Disaster?"

There was one effort at long-range psychological warfare: an educational TV station taped a three-minute film of Hawaii Defense Coach Larry Price lolling in a beach chair, strumming a ukulele and being plied with mai tais by a bikiniclad waitress. "Come on out," Price beamed. "Just bring plenty of sun lotion, swim fins, sunglasses—that's all you need." The film was shipped to Lincoln and was shown on TV there. "I guess most of our boys saw it," Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney said later.

The Cornhuskers were due in Honolulu on Wednesday. Dec. 1, but an estimated 2,000 fans had preceded them. (One chartered planeload arrived in Hilo the day before Thanksgiving and watched the Oklahoma game at the Naniloa Hotel.) The boosters, wearing red cowboy hats, red dress hats, red tics, red jackets and even red pants, bloomed across Waikiki like poinsettias at Christmas. One group, sporting round red berets, prompted a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, gathering for a 30th anniversary convention, to exclaim: "They look like the meatballs on those damned Zeroes!"

Although early fans were able to persuade some Waikiki musicians to substitute the Nebraska fight song for the Princess Pupule, they were not allowed to meet their heroes at the airport. United Air Lines cunningly diverted the team plane to an obscure cargo area a mile from the main terminal. This tactic, however, did not entirely abort Hawaii's pre-game plan. About 30 wahines, some in splashy muumuus, a few in print bolero jackets and brief, tight hot pants, all armed with dozens of flower leis, swarmed to the stairways at the front and rear of the big jet. (The girls in hot pants were Rainbow cheerleaders. "We call them our navel reserve." a Hawaii official confided.) Jeff Kinney broke three tackles on one play against Oklahoma, but he didn't break a single embrace in the first 10 minutes after landing. Neither did Johnny Rodgers, who had more trouble (and possibly more fun) scrambling 50 yards to the waiting buses than he had going 72 yards for a touchdown at Norman.

It soon became clear that Devaney, an old Hawaiian hand, had prepared a pregame plan of his own: attack. Instead of hustling his charges off to Makaha or the Schofield army barracks, he boldly led them straight into the land of milk and honey—coconut milk and lots of honeys; straight into the Hilton Hawaiian Village at Waikiki. And, lest any moonlight infiltration be attempted there, he scheduled a 7:30 closed-door workout under the lights.

Although Devaney, who has coached in the Hula Bowl, had prepared his players for the undeniably remarkable sight of Honolulu Stadium, some were nonplussed. "Would you believe that?" asked one substitute back, marveling at the wormy, wooden bleachers and the playing surface itself, a patchwork of brown dirt and scrabbled grass. While the Cornhuskers ran through brisk, no-contact drills supervised by his assistants, Devaney—mindful of the agonizing 6-0 upset Hawaii achieved at Lincoln in 1955—stood near the 50-yard line and defended both the field and Hawaiian officiating from invidious questions. "I told 'em this is the only place we can play football Saturday night, and we better be ready to play," he said of the former. "We expect a good game and fair calls." The latter question grew out of Hawaii's 28-21 victory over New Mexico the previous week, a game in which the Lobos were 24-point favorites and in which they were penalized 147 yards against the Rainbows' 28. Not all Nebraskans were as discreet as the coach. "With those officials, I figure Hawaii has a 16-man defense," one muttered. "Maybe we could get a change of venue," somebody else suggested.

The next morning the Cornhuskers played into the hands of the Hawaiian conspiracy. (Devaney obviously believes that history is made—and football games lost—at night.) Nearly every member of the team was down by the ocean at 8:30. Trainer Paul Schneider had prescribed beach play and swimming for Thursday but no water Friday and Saturday. Also, no surfboards. Quarterback Jerry Tagge, Johnny Rodgers and Bill Kosch took off in a bicycle-style paddle boat, but they did not stray far. The girls were coming, this time in green tileaf hula skirts, and laden with the inevitable leis.

At the behest of photographers, the Husker backfield paddled about the almost surfless cove in an outrigger canoe, with the tender enemy as passengers. Back ashore, Rosie Alvaro, a Hawaiian-Portuguese-English-Chinese charmer, led Johnny Rodgers into two feet of water and taught him the hula after wreathing him with a plumeria lei. Somewhat unwillingly, Tagge threw a few coconut passes for a photographer, who implored him to "cock your arm more." "They don't teach us that in Nebraska," Tagge said sharply.

A 10 a.m. meeting cut short this happy diversion. When the players returned to the beach they seemed impervious to half-a-hundred bikinied irregulars. Remote though the chance seemed, no Husker wanted to approach Alabama having left the team's No. 1 rating on the sands of Waikiki. Devaney himself dozed in the sun under a coconut hat on a tiny section of sand well away from his troops. That night he took the team to dinner in a nearby Chinese restaurant. "That's Devaney's idea," grumbled Trainer Schneider. "If it was me I'd keep 'em right at the training table. Hell, we took all our own food to the Oklahoma game, right down to the salt and pepper. After all, who knows what kind of food you'll get in an Oklahoma City hotel?"

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