Donovan: Right Man, Right Time

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - March 19, 2008
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Jim Donovan
Jim Donovan

When the University of Hawaii cut its ties with its big-talking, underachieving athletic director, handicappers immediately latched onto seven possible contenders for Herman Frazier’s former mount.

Although the list was quickly whittled down to five, it was really a three-horse race from the start with Hawaii Community College Chancellor Rockne Freitas, Sheraton Hawaii Bowl executive director Jim Donovan and interim athletic director Carl Clapp leading the field.

With the last “national search” turning out so poorly, everyone with an opinion was looking locally - an idea that sounds good but one that can often lead to poor performance as old boy hires are often made with a nod toward familiarity and not ability.

Fortunately, in a sudden change of luck for the university and anyone stuck with those god-awful silver-and-white football jerseys, this was one job hunt overflowing with qualified local talent.

As good as Jim Donovan has been as a UH lineman, Rainbow Stadium manager, marketing director, associate athletic director, Hawaii Bowl director, a marketing and consulting company owner - and now UH athletic director - what really stands out is Jim Donovan the person.

While even the nicest people have critics, locating someone to take such a stance against Donovan is akin to finding rational thought in the legislative halls of power. Jim is a nice guy going into a job that sorely needs one. Though putting one’s faith in karma can lead to heartbreak upon the realization that good things don’t always happen to good people, at least on this one small occasion our faith in Eastern philosophy has been secured.

One of Frazier’s many criticisms was that he didn’t know how, or didn’t seem interested in relating to the fans and boosters who provide the funding and physical support on which athletic departments depend. Donovan won’t have that problem. Although born and raised in Anaheim, he’s now one local boy who embraces all things Hawaii, and his likability will mean greater access to the positions of power and finance.

Plus he knows his way around the Capitol - a necessary evil that most former directors realized was key in getting legislative support.

After dealing with a guy who could appear to be too high-mucky-muck for many, the new AD’s honesty and warmth will be a welcome breath of fresh air in a department trying to wrestle itself out of the doldrums brought on by Third World facilities, heightened expectations and lessening fan interest. He’s going to need every ounce of charisma he can muster.

The university is at a crossroad, stuck at an intersection that can lead the department to either becoming a national player or one that wallows in the nether regions of deep space that is the second tier of NCAA athletics.

Add to this the problem that the teaching arm of the university is in the same predicament and things get even more dicey.

Donovan must first take care of the minor things like removing Cooke Field from the biggest embarrassment list, replacing the faded and dangerously sharp seats at Les Murakami Stadium, staying competitive with a budget that each year sinks deeper behind the NCAA powers that be, and reducing a $4.9 million deficit. But the opportunity also comes with a chance to define a legacy.

Much like the man who preceded Donovan by 15 years, the stars just may align to where need and timing meet ability and availability.

After competing for decades in Klum Gym and Blaisdell Arena, it was time for the university to grow up and build a suitable on-campus home for its basketball and volleyball teams. Fortunately the timing was right and the right man was on the job. Stan Sheriff touted, coaxed and cajoled the idea of a 10,000-seat arena when those holding the checkbook were happy with much less. Hindsight has proven him correct. Donovan could find himself in the same situation.

At 48 years old, he is young enough to introduce and usher through a plan for the replacement of Aloha Stadium. He’ll need a lot more time than the five years covered under his deal to even begin the plan to start planning, but it’s a job that needs to be done. With a price tag between $400 million and $500 million - which, when the usual delays and screw ups are factored in, will no doubt add another $50 or $100 million to the total cost - it’s going to take a huge investment and commitment from the school and the state.

But it’s a job that the new AD needs to tackle. Actual construction won’t begin for at least a decade, but if the former line-man can work this biggest of magic tricks, Jim Donovan Stadium may one day be the home of UH football. Then again, state policy makers will probably replace his name with some high-placed political hack.


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