UH football’s first-ever college opponent was Nevada in 1920

This Honolulu Advertiser sports section headline appeared Dec. 24, 1920. (newspapers.com)
An unidentified UH safety (left) and linebacker pursue a Nevada ball carrier at Punahou’s Alexander Field. Note the “H” logo, sans tapa trim. (Honolulu Advertiser photo Dec. 27, 1920)

Depending on whom you talk to, the current state of the University of Hawai’i football program can be described as either (1) a hot mess, or (2) simply going through a rough patch in the rebuilding process.

Or just about everything in between.

But while that debate may rage on, at Hawai’i Sports Mo’olelo, my aim is to tell stories. So now is probably as good a time as any to step back, take a break and reflect on how football started at the University of Hawai’i in the first place, in particular from the intercollegiate perspective.

It is worth noting that for the first eight seasons after its 1909 debut, Hawai’i football was essentially a club team that actually competed against local high schools and non-scholastic club teams.

In fact, the first three seasons (1909-1911) saw only two different opponents (McKinley and O’ahu College/Punahou). The program then shut down for three seasons (1912-1914) and upon returning in 1915, added Kamehameha and Mills (Mid-Pacific Institute) to the schedule.

The 1916 season finale was against the National Guard.

The 1917 season again saw only high school opponents (Punahou, Kamehameha and McKinley), but the 1918 and 1919 schedules were filled with non-scholastic teams (Aero Squadron, Fort Shafter 1st Infantry, Signal Corps, Outrigger Canoe Club, Schofield, Luke Field and Town Team).

Remember, the first Trans-Pacific flight was still more than a decade away, so back then the only way to get to and from Hawai’i was by ship. So UH was extremely limited in its scheduling options.

After three successful seasons (11-1-2) under head coach David Crawford — an Entomology professor and Department Head who later became UH President! — Hawai’i “hired” Raymond Elliott to take over the football program.

(The word “hired” is in quotes because I’m not even sure if that was a paid position in those days)

UH began the 1920 season with five straight shutout victories, over Pearl Harbor Navy, Luke Field, Punahou, Schofield and Palama, before losing to Outrigger Canoe Club, 3-0. After rebounding with a 23-14 win over Waikiki, Hawai’i (6-1) then prepared for its first-ever college opponent, the University of Nevada, in a 3 p.m. Christmas Day game at Punahou’s Alexander Field.

The Sagebrushers, as Nevada was known back then, were 6-3 including wins over UC Davis, Utah and Utah State, and losses to Cal, USC and Santa Clara. Their schedule also included games against Nevada Alumni, San Francisco American Legion and Mare Island Naval Base — showing that even Mainland colleges played non-scholastic teams back then.

So while UH had never played a college opponent before, it was not expected to be a blowout and size-wise, the matchup seemed somewhat even.

Nevada took a 7-0 lead after a touchdown in the first four minutes, but then was held scoreless until the fourth quarter, when it sealed the 14-0 victory with a late TD.

The Honolulu Advertiser reported that “Superior knowledge of the finesse of the game, and the possession of a perfectly co-ordinating offensive and defensive machine are what gave the victory to the visitors despite the fact that Hawaii battled savagely and well in all stages of the melee except the first quarter.”

The article went on to state that “Hawaii played well, and in several instances brilliantly. The chief gains were made by brilliant passing in the later moments of the game.”

UH quarterback Bob Spencer was having a good afternoon “until he was called out of the game, in the second half after a bad smash.” Supposedly that’s what a “katoosh” was called back then.

“For Hawaii, Spencer, Mott-Smith, Lydgate and Connant were noticeable to no small extent. The Hawaii line held well in the latter part of the game,” The Advertiser reported.

Another Advertiser article in the same section noted that “University of Hawaii did better than could really have been expected. Playing its first game with a real university, and against a team that has had the privilege of taking on the best on the Pacific Coast the local men … were a surprise to every one, including the Nevadans, who admit that Hawaii is not by any means an opponent to be made light of.”

As a loyal UH alum and hardcore Hawai’i football fan since 1979, I am proud to learn that literally from Day 1 of intercollegiate competition, our program was described that way.

And over 101 years later, we can proudly say the same about our team today. Hopefully, this remains the case for another century, and beyond.

“Here’s to our dear Hawai’i, here’s to the Green and White.

Here’s to our alma mater, here’s to the team with fight!

Rah! Rah! Rah!”

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