Mele Kalikimaka: Hawaii’s Holiday Spot on the Bowl Calendar

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Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way to say Merry Christmas to you. Hawaii’s other way of wishing America a Merry Christmas is through college football, a tradition going strong since 1937.

I have a special affinity for Hawaii at the holidays. My one visit to the Islands was my honeymoon, one week before Christmas. There was something indescribably magical hearing traditional, holiday tunes with a Hawaiian spin; seeing palm trees decorated in lights; and watching an FCS Playoffs game, emanating from frigid Cheney, Washington, while sipping a Bikini Blonde on a stool at a beachside bar.

For a few hours every Christmas Eve, I can spiritually plug myself back into that time and place with what has become a mandatory facet of any Night Before in my household. Sometimes, it’s better spending the holiday with Chris Johnson, Colt Brennan or Golden Tate than it is family members.

The Hawaii Bowl’s maintained its Dec. 24 place since its debut in 2002. Host University of Hawaii plays MTSU Saturday, marking the Rainbow Warriors’ first postseason date since 2010, when they last played in their namesake bowl game.

The All-Star Hula Bowl persisted for decades, from 1947 through 2008, including for a three-decade stretch when Hawaii lacked a traditional bowl game.

College football stars like Kenny Easley, Dan Marino, John David Crow, Fran Tarkenton and Tony Dorsett earned Most Valuable Player honors of Hula Bowls past. Current Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich, whose Rainbow Warriors play in the 2016 Hawaii Bowl, counts himself among the Hula Bowl MVPs, winning the award in the game’s 2002 edition.

The Hula Bowl went dark after the 2008 season, but was announced for a return a decade later. The 2018 Hula Bowl will emanate from…Raleigh, North Carolina.

Huh.

OK, so Raleigh isn’t tabbed as the permanent home. The Hula Bowl is expected to make its way back to Hawaii at some point. Fittingly, college football has had a way of returning to the Aloha State despite hiatuses.

In 1982, the Aloha Bowl kicked off the first traditional bowl game played in Honolulu in 30 years. And it started with a bang, as ninth-ranked Washington outlasted No. 16 Maryland, 21-20, in the first of six Top 25 matchups the game featured in its 18 years.

But for as many great matchups and historical pairing as the Aloha Bowl featured — games like USC-Alabama and SMU-Notre Dame — it lost steam by 2000.

The last Aloha Bowl pit Boston College against Arizona State. So excited was ASU brass about reaching the Aloha Bowl for a second consecutive year, it fired head coach Bruce Snyder before playing the Eagles.

“This is all about economics,” Aloha, Inc. director Fritz Rohlfing told reporters in 2000. “We can’t have what happened last year happen again.”

What happened last year was Arizona State and Wake Forest drawing a dismal 7,000 fans for a 23-3 Demon Deacon win.

Diminishing of the game’s quality in matchups contributed to its demise. So, too, did over-saturation. In 1998, the Aloha Bowl shared the stage with the upstart Oahu Bowl.

A doubleheader in Aloha Stadium on Christmas Day had certain appeal for me as a high schooler, and the Hawaiian double-dip spawned a memorable King of the Hill joke. The same episode references Dennis Rodman “catching a folding chair to the head” on Christmas Night Smackdown. I think Mike Judge might be a closet wrestling fan.

Quite an enduring memory for the Aloha Bowl, which launched as the spiritual successor to the Pineapple Bowl. The Pineapple Bowl began as the Poi Bowl in 1936, and save the years coinciding with World War II and its aftermath — 1942-1946 — that game ran every year until 1952.

The Poi Bowl made a one-year return to fill the Pineapple Bowl’s vacancy in January 1945, at a time when the United States had turned the tide of the War and victory was near. Service academies and base teams largely dominated the sport in this era, and the Poi Bowl honored those great teams with an all-star matchup of Naval and Air Force players.

To that end, perhaps the most fascinating element to Hawaii’s holiday football tradition is its historical connections to World War II. At the conclusion of the 1940 season, the Pineapple Bowl invited Pacific Coast Conference representative Oregon State to face host Hawaii.

The Beavers won, 39-6, in what was a springboard to the Beavers’ Rose Bowl campaign the next season. Of course, the 1941 Oregon State Beavers are as much known for their collective valor in the war effort as winning the PCC and the Granddaddy of ‘Em All.

Both are covered in the Brian Curtis-authored book, Fields of Battle. But the 1942 Rose Bowl Game, played in Durham, North Carolina, isn’t Hawaii’s only college football connection to World War II.

Fields of Battle touches on the oft-overlooked, yet historically significant round robin of December 1941, which featured Hawaii, San Jose State and Willamette (a current Div. II school in Oregon). The teams were on Oahu for a Date Which Will Live in Infamy.

“We saw the planes diving and the battleship Oklahoma capsizing and slowly sinking into the mud,” San Jose State tackle Gray McConnell told The Mercury News in 1981, on the 40th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. “The flames and the smoke from the Arizona cast a dirty brown pall over the whole scene. It was horrible, but it was fascinating, too.”

Certainly a far more somber, terrifying scenario than that illustrated in the introduction, albeit one that brought out the best in college football players — players who volunteered in the immediate aftermath to aid in the relief effort.

Through its various incarnations, few bowl games or locales can match Hawaii for its historical relevance to the college football postseason. To that, I bid you a Mele Kalikimaka.