LOS ANGELES — Norm Chow knows his way around the Coliseum. Part of it, anyway.
As USC's offensive coordinator from 2001 to 2004, he called plays from a booth in the press box, directing some of the most prolific offenses in Trojans history, helping USC win two national titles and tutoring Heisman Trophy winners Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart.
As an assistant at UCLA and Utah, he schemed against the Trojans from a similar perch high above the field.
On Saturday, Chow will be on the visiting sideline, directing his staff and players in his first game as Hawaii's head coach.
"I can find my way to the press box," Chow joked during a phone interview. "I'm not sure I can find my way to the sidelines."
Chow, 66, came full circle to become the first Asian American head coach to lead a major college football program.
Born and raised in Hawaii, he coached high school football in his home state before starting his college coaching career at Brigham Young as a graduate assistant in 1973. He spent 27 years in Provo, Utah, and then moved to North Carolina State, USC, the NFL's Tennessee Titans, UCLA and Utah before Hawaii hired him to replace Greg McMackin.
Chow said he had been happy at Utah, his alma mater. It was where he met his wife, Diane, and where the couple raised a family. But when the Hawaii job opened, he explored the possibilities.
"It's home, it's the only game in town and the people of the state really wanted to have something to rally around," he said.
Chow inherited a team that finished 6-7 last season.
He returns to the Coliseum to face a USC team ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll and No. 3 in the coaches' poll. The Trojans are 40-point favorites.
"It will be fun," Chow said, "and a huge, huge challenge for our guys."
Chow and USC Coach Lane Kiffin were part of former coach Pete Carroll's first Trojans staff, Chow the 55-year-old professorial veteran, Kiffin an ambitious 26-year-old assistant in charge of tight ends.
By 2004, Kiffin was coaching wide receivers and also had the title of passing game coordinator.
A few weeks before USC's Bowl Championship Series title-game victory over Oklahoma, Chow interviewed for the head coach job at Stanford but was not hired. After the season, Carroll proposed reducing Chow's responsibilities and increasing Kiffin's, a factor that nudged Chow to become the Titans' offensive coordinator in February 2005. Carroll then promoted Kiffin and re-hired Steve Sarkisian and made them co-offensive coordinators.
Chow said reports of a rift between him and Kiffin were "exaggerated."
"It's OK," Chow said of their relationship. "It was never not OK."
When Kiffin was hired to succeed Carroll in early 2010, former athletic director Mike Garrett dreamed of Chow returning to the Trojans as part of Kiffin's staff. But with Kiffin calling his own plays, that was never going to happen.
However, Kiffin and Chow remain connected.
"It's kind of crazy," Kiffin said. "I seem to run into Norm about every year."
In 2007, Kiffin was head coach of the Oakland Raiders when they lost to the Titans, 13-9. The next year, the teams played an exhibition and the Titans won again.
Chow was UCLA's offensive coordinator in 2009 when the Bruins defeated Tennessee, 19-15, at Knoxville, Tenn., in Kiffin's only season with the Volunteers.
Kiffin and the Trojans defeated UCLA, 28-14, in 2010. Chow moved to Utah for the 2011 season and the Trojans beat the Utes, 23-14.
"He's like my guardian angel," Kiffin joked. "Always hovering over me."
Kiffin has said that he was lucky to be next to Chow in the coaches' booth during their stint as USC assistants. Chow's ability to establish relationships with players also made an impression on Kiffin.Comment on this story
"Players would come into his office and he'd figure them out," said Kiffin, now 37. "I didn't know how important that was. As I get older, I spend a lot more time on individual relationships."
Chow still has a home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and remains in contact with friends from his USC days. He said that while he respects and admires USC and the opportunity the school provided him, the only thing he'll be focused on Saturday is making sure his team plays as well as possible.
And doing it from the sideline.
"My wife's biggest concern," he said, laughing, "is that I'll trip and fall on my face."