He was the local prep football legend who set the state career passing record at Saint Louis.
He was the prospect who turned down multiple offers from Power Five schools in order to sign with his hometown team, the University of Hawaii.
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He was the quarterback who briefly split time with Nick Rolovich as Hawaii’s starter before going on to set the NCAA passing record with his late father, Levi, in attendance.
He was the UH starting quarterback who preceded the Colt Brennan era.
He was the man who was once approached by a precocious elementary schooler named Tua Tagovailoa. The youngster warned he’d break his state passing record one day, a declaration that came true in the 2016 HHSAA championship game.
It seems that everywhere one looks, Timmy Chang is connected to Hawaii’s recent football history in one way or another since making a name for himself in the slopes of Kalaepohaku in the late 1990s.
On Saturday, Chang officially opens up another chapter of the state’s football history as he makes his head coaching debut for his alma mater. Kickoff between Hawaii and Vanderbilt at the Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex is set for 4:30 p.m.
After he threw for 17,072 yards and 117 touchdowns in college, Chang had a brief professional career in NFL preseason camps and a stint in Canada. It wasn’t until 2012 that Chang decided to take up coaching. His first gig in the industry was as a graduate assistant at SMU under his coach at UH, June Jones. Less than a decade later, he was hired to lead UH in a time of true peril for the program after an opening was created by Todd Graham’s abrupt resignation.
Although he steadily climbed the college coaching ladder with stops at Jackson State, Emory & Henry, Nevada and Colorado State, none of his years as an assistant coach were spent at Hawaii. But perhaps a return to Hawaii was always inevitable for Chang.
“There’s a poetry to this. There’s this sort of life cycle element to this. This prized, young football talent, I remember calling on radio one of his first games that he played for Saint Louis and then obviously developed into one of the top quarterback prospects coming out of the state of Hawaii,” says Spectrum Sports play-by-play announcer and ESPN Honolulu host Kanoa Leahey. “I just remember there being this inevitability when Timmy arrived at the University of Hawaii, like this is a guy who is gonna leave his mark. He’s gonna leave a legacy. His records, his statistics, those will be part of University of Hawaii history forever, and that’s basically what happened. … I guess looking back on it without really even knowing it, we probably should have been able to point out the inevitability there. Here was this guy who had such an impact, here was this guy that was learning the coaching industry at the knee of many really, really great coaches, June Jones included, that maybe we should have looked at that. We should’ve looked at that circuitous route and been like, ‘Alright, there’s a really high probability that one day, this guy Timmy Chang, when he applies himself to something, seems to always find some level of success.’ Maybe we should have seen this coming.
“Obviously I think the process was sped up a bit because of some of the pilikia that the program went through with the previous regime. He’s got his work cut out for him for sure, but I think everybody is on the same page that hey, look, he’s trying to do it the right way. He’s put together a collection of staff members and players and supporting circles that I think hearken back to the glory days of the program and some of the great memories of University of Hawaii football over the past two decades. He connects us to that while also connecting us to the future, and there’s a comfort to that. I think him being here completes a circle that seems and feels very poetic and seems and feels like it was supposed to be.”
Because of the state of the program when he took over, Chang had the daunting task of repairing a program that was nearing its breaking point. From his first day on the job to just a few days before his first official game, players and coaches on the 2022 Hawaii team agree that Chang has done his part.
“He came back home when things were real rough. Everything was kind of all over the place and he really turned this whole program, this whole state around,” starting center Eliki Tanuvasa said. “He got the state to come back behind us again and he got that family feeling back, that ‘braddahhood’ back together. He put so much work into us, a lot of ups and downs, and he stuck his neck out for us. So, it’s only right that we return the favor and give everything we got on that field.”
New director of player development Jeff Reinebold, who was also the team’s defensive line coach during the best two-year run in program history from 2006 to 2007, believes the culture Chang has built in Manoa thus far is one that’s sustainable.
He also believes Chang will be UH’s coach for a long time.
“Obviously, we’ve gotta grow and we’ve got a ways to go, but I think there’s a vision. Timmy’s a visionary. He has a plan here,” Reinebold said. “This is not hit-and-miss, we’re gonna just win one or two years and get out of here kind of deal. We wanna make this a sustainable program where he have sustainable greatness, where year to year to year to year, we can count on being an outstanding football team, a bowl football team and in the good years, a team that can win 10, 11, 12 games and in the tough years, you’re still winning eight or nine and going to a bowl game. That’s the level of greatness we’re trying to obtain and we talk about chasing that every day. But here, we stand on the shoulders of giants and that’s pretty cool.”
When asked about the magnitude of his debut following Tuesday’s practice, Chang maintained an even keel, sounding more like a grizzled veteran who has mastered coach speak rather than a first-timer chomping at the bit.
“It hasn’t hit, really. With our coaching staff and our guys, just kind of focusing on the process and stuff but somewhere along the way, it’ll hit. But trying to stay just nice and cool, nice and easy, and really just stick to our routine and preparing our guys to get ready, just nice and smooth,” he said.
One would not blame Chang, a father of five, for being unable to find the time to reflect on the path his career has taken.
For the team’s season debut, Chang has made the executive decision to not reveal a starting quarterback until said quarterback takes the field against the Commodores. In a depth chart released Monday, Brayden Schager, Joey Yellen and Cammon Cooper each appeared at quarterback, who no bold lettering and an ‘OR’ attached to each name. For all the mystery surrounding the Rainbow Warriors, their offense, their 53 newcomers, and the rest of the team as a whole, this much is clear: They’ll be led out of the tunnel by Chang for the first time on Saturday.
“It’s truly a special, special feeling. You’d always hear about Timmy Chang and going through the recruiting process with him, I actually talked to him while he was at other schools,” said Tanuvasa, who has played for three different head coaches in four years at UH. “It’s a pretty crazy feeling having it come back full circle and now we’re on the same team, same campus so it’s truly awesome.”