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September 5, 2012
Norm Chow is a realist. He knows recruiting to Hawaii is a brawl against a steel-constructed cyborg. He says he intends to "fight like heck," but isn't sure how much impact his punches will have.
Poachers are using weapons such as tradition and exposure to raid the talent on his island. The invasion isn't new, either. A Tennessee commitment here, a Clemson-bound defensive end there; in a state already thin on talent, it adds up quickly.
"More people are recruiting here now," said Chow, a Hawaii native. "We want to fight them off, but the program hasn't had much success doing that in the past."
This year, the state is home to five prospects of three-star stature and above. Zero of them are committed to Hawaii. The Warriors have not locked down a single one of the state's top two players since Rivals.com began its rankings a decade ago. In fact, in 2006 it was so bad that the Warriors failed to add any of the top 19 homegrown prospects.
Thirteen four- and five-stars have played high school football on island soil over the course of the last seven years. Hawaii has secured a commitment from exactly zero of them. It's a batting average that would qualify as embarrassing even in coach-pitch leagues.
In the end, it boils down to an indisputable fact: Palm trees, beaches and breathtaking views are nice. But full stadiums and nationally televised games are nicer. And even though Hawaii made a recent BCS bowl run - a Sugar Bowl appearance following a perfect regular season in 2007 - it has never been able to sustain success despite its exotic location.
"Hawaii is paradise, but Hawaii isn't a school a lot of people want to go to for football," said Scott Pagano, a four-star defensive lineman who will leave the island to play college football at Clemson next season.
Guarding the program's resources is as difficult as guarding the border. An official visit to Hawaii? Hey, why not? Chow, in just his first year as the team's coach, says players looking for a free vacation have already burned him on several occasions.
"That's a huge problem," he said. "They get wined and dined for a weekend. It's a pretty good deal for them. It's hard to tell if kids are really interested. We already learned our lesson on that. We're working on it, but how do you do that? How do you tell?"
Fact is, you can't. That makes it hard to blame Chow for deciding to allocate recruiting funds elsewhere. As high-prestige colleges push into Hawaii, the Warriors will look toward other continents.
"Australia is a fertile place," Chow said. "They don't play a lot of our kind of football over there. They play a lot of Australia football. One of our current Australian players is an ex-professional Australian football player. He helps us in a number of ways. So, yes, we intend to increase our presence there."
The current Hawaii roster includes four international players. Another 19 are junior college transfers. Ten arrived in Honolulu from other Division I programs. The team's depth chart is a necessary hodgepodge of unfulfilled talent and undiscovered potential.
Hawaii believes in second chances, if only because it's forced to. A year ago, the program acted as a soft landing for Mike Edwards after the defensive back was dismissed from Tennessee following an arrest for attempted aggravated robbery (he later pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment as part of a plea agreement). Colt Brennan became a Heisman Trophy finalist there after being convicted of criminal trespass and burglary as a player at Colorado in 2004.
Those are only the two most notable cases. This is Fresh Start U, and the new head coach plans on embracing everything that goes with the name.
"We need to take bounce-back stories or kids that grew up a little bit after high school and want another shot," Chow said. "We're not like a normal school that can just go into the mainland and take a player."
Praise for Chow's outside-the-box thinking has never been in short supply. He was hailed as an innovator during his time as USC's offensive coordinator. Trojan players called him a "genius" and the "architect" of the team's mid-2000s success.
The real test of his creativity comes now, though. And the exam is set to take place on the recruiting trail, not a football field.