December 23, 2007

Warriors on guard

During his years with the Atlanta Falcons - both as a player and head coach - June Jones knew all about the Georgia Bulldogs.

He couldn't help not to.

"If you lived in Georgia, all you heard about was the Georgia Bulldogs," Jones said. "I always admired the program, and the support that fans in that state give that team is something that was very apparent to me."

It's that kind of support that Jones is hoping to develop for his Warriors. A 12-0 season and Sugar Bowl berth against the Bulldogs hasn't hurt.

Not surprisingly, interest in the team in state is at an all-time high.

But as Hawaii prepares to board a plane east for New Orleans, Jones is wary of his team getting too caught up in all the hoopla that the Warriors are about to experience. It's something he said his squad cannot afford to happen if it wants to beat the Bulldogs.

"They're the best team we've played since I've been here," said Jones, in his ninth year as Hawaii's coach. "Every one of their starters looks like a player who can play in the NFL. It goes without saying that this is going to be our greatest challenge."

Hawaii fans are certainly fired up about their team's opportunity. In fact, it's an energy that Jones has not seen before.

"Nothing has ever come close," Jones said of the excitement that has overtaken the nation's 50th state. "There was not much interest in us at all after losing (19 straight from 1998-99), but after we beat Oregon State in the Oahu Bowl (1999), that kind of jumpstarted our program and the interest started to pick up. There's a lot of bedlam on the Island right now.
"Pretty much everybody here is excited and talking about the Hawaii football team."

Defensive coordinator Greg McMackin says Jones deserves the credit for that.

"The main reason I came to Hawaii is my friendship with June. He's been a friend of mine for over 30 years, we're both from Oregon, he and I coached in the USFL his first year (as a coach). I think the world of him," said McMackin, who served as defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98). "When he got over here, he really changed the perception and the way the game is played here on the Island. He's created a lot of passion in the community, and that's something I wanted to be a part of."

Warrior fans are putting their wallets to work, too.

Jones says over 20,000 tickets have been sold for the Sugar Bowl at the Superdome.

"It's amazing to me that so many people know our names and recognize us whenever we go out in public, so much more than last year," junior linebacker Adam Leonard said. "The entire state has rallied together to support us, and everywhere we go people tell us how much they enjoy watching Warrior football. We in turn want to provide them with the same kind of joy that they bring us."

But Jones knows his football team is about to enter into a world in which it has never been.

Although the Warriors played at Louisiana Tech in Week 2 of the regular season, a trip to New Orleans, with all the distractions of the city, the media onslaught, plus the pressure of playing in the program's first-ever BCS game is a different animal for the team.

"It's going to be like a Super Bowl. Our kids have no idea what they're about to walk into and we're trying to get them ready for that," Jones said. "The media, everywhere we go. I'm just trying to prepare them as best that I can because it's going to be a real shock to them."

That's why the Warriors will fly into Hawaii on Christmas Day, one day ahead of when the Bulldogs will arrive on the 26th.
But just because his team will have an extra day in Sin City, Hawaii's players won't be doing any extra sight-seeing.

"We're going to bed," Jones said. "That's the problem with flying east, you lose a day. Actually, we're lucky this time. Normally, when we go to play at Louisiana Tech, we get there about 11 in the morning, then go to bed and play a game the next day. At least now we've got five or six days to get accustomed to the time change."

Jones said plans to give his team some time to enjoy the sights and sounds of New Orleans, but not much.

For his Warriors to have a chance against Georgia there won't be many opportunities for fun and games.

"We always have curfews, but to be honest, we're pretty much tied up all the time because we'll have meetings at night," Jones said. "The first couple of nights we might alter our curfew so our kids can see their families, go to dinner and what not. But this is a business trip for us and we intend to treat it as such."

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