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College football: Building a successful team has its ups, downs

Updated: 
October 4, 2017 - 12:05am

Nick Rolovich knows all about the sophomore slump. He has seen it first hand.

Actually, though, he was a junior. He was the University of Hawaii’s starting quarterback at the beginning of 2000 — coach June Jones’ second season.

You probably figured it out already that we’re talking about the sophomore slump for coaches.

Jones and the Rainbow Warriors were coming off the greatest turnaround in college football history, as UH went 9-4 including a bowl win in Jones’ 1999 debut after Hawaii was 0-12 in 1998, which was Fred von Appen’s final season.

But things did not go well from the get-go for the ‘Bows in 2000; they finished the year at 3-9 and with freshman Timmy Chang at quarterback instead of Rolovich.

Rolo, the quarterback, got a chance to redeem himself in 2001 when Chang got hurt. And that he did, as the Warriors went 9-3, with Rolovich throwing 47 million TD passes (it just seemed like that many, it was actually 20) in the last three games and UH averaged 59.7 points.

But this sophomore slump thing is often real for coaches, and now Rolovich is in the position of trying to dodge it after Saturday’s 51-21 loss to Colorado State put the Warriors at 2-3 and 0-2 in the Mountain West.

The swing wasn’t as dramatic for them as for Jones, but the win-loss records of Greg McMackin and Norm Chow also were not as good the second year as the first.

As it was for Jones, the third year for McMackin and Chow were better. In Chow’s case, it was just four wins (up from one in 2013).

But for McMackin, after his sophomore slump of six wins, his third year in 2010 brought with it 10 victories. That included UH’s last league championship and most recent winning season. By the way, the offensive coordinator was named Nick Rolovich.

Rolovich has more in common with Jones than McMackin in this regard: Like Jones, Rolovich was tasked with fixing something that was obviously broken. When McMackin replaced Jones, the Warriors still had the core of a strong defense to build upon, and an offensive system that wouldn’t change too much. Likewise, the coaching staff (of which McMackin had been part) had quite a few holdovers.

The biggest thing Jones and Rolovich brought to their first-year UH teams was hope, where there was little or none left. The first job was to patch up the survivors remaining from years of losing and teach them that they could win.

They succeeded. Like Jones, Rolovich turned around a losing team enough in his first year for it to win a bowl game.

This is where we often hear, “Yeah, but he did it with (insert name of previous coach)’s players.”

It’s true — as in both of these cases, sometimes a coach is fired before his first recruiting class reaches its senior year. There are points to be made on both sides as to whether that is fair to the coach who was fired.

But what it doesn’t mean is that the new coach’s job of turning players that have only known losing in college into a winning team is easy. Somehow, Jones and Rolovich did it.

Building a program is a whole different matter than building a team for one year, though. Some decisions are made with the long-term in mind when building a foundation.

In the second year, the new coach’s recruits meld with holdovers from the previous regime for prominent positions on the team. The initial blast of adrenaline supplied by the new coach may be wearing off. Issues like lack of depth become apparent.

At 2-3 overall, the 2017 Rainbow Warriors have an uphill battle ahead of them for bowl eligibility. At 0-2 in the conference the same can be said for making it to the conference championship game.

But it’s not impossible by any means, and it helps that the next two games — at Nevada (0-5) and homecoming against San Jose State (1-4) — are about as “get-well” as you can get.

So, the sophomore slump might end — or at least, be put on pause — Saturday in Reno, Nev., where the Rainbow Warriors have been installed as four-point favorites.

There’s plenty of season left, and no one wants to say wait ‘til next year, as tempting as that is for fatalists after how bad Hawaii looked Saturday.

It’s just good to keep in mind that the third year for a coach is often a better indicator of where a football program is headed under him than the previous two — even if the first is good and the second not-so-good.

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