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Hawaii, with its beautiful beaches, lush landscapes, and vibrant culture, is one of the most iconic U.S. states. Many people might be surprised to learn that Hawaii is not actually located within any of the continental sports conferences.

In this article, we’ll provide a quick overview of Hawaii’s conference affiliation and the history behind it.

If you’re short on time, here’s the quick answer: The University of Hawaii athletics teams compete in the Mountain West Conference across most sports.

Hawaii is in the Mountain West Conference

Overview of the Mountain West Conference

The Mountain West Conference (MWC) is an NCAA Division I collegiate athletic conference consisting of 12 schools located in the Western United States. Formed in 1999, the MWC has established itself as a highly competitive league, especially in basketball and football.

Some of the premier athletic programs in the conference include San Diego State, UNLV, New Mexico, Boise State, and Fresno State.

The Mountain West spans a vast geographic footprint, with member institutions located in California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Hawai’i. The conference is divided into two divisions for football – the Mountain Division and the West Division.

Teams play an 8-game conference schedule, as well as 4 out-of-conference games. The two division winners meet in the Mountain West Football Championship Game.

In basketball, the Mountain West plays a 18-game conference schedule. Historically, the conference has received multiple at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. Since 2000, Mountain West teams have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen on 10 occasions.

When and why Hawaii joined the Mountain West Conference

The University of Hawai’i joined the Mountain West Conference in 2012 after spending the previous 14 seasons in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). The primary reason for Hawai’i’s move to the MWC was instability with its former conference.

In the early 2010s, the WAC experienced significant membership turnover as several prominent members left for other conferences. With the WAC on shaky ground, Hawai’i saw the Mountain West as a more stable home that offered greater exposure and prestige.

As the Mountain West’s lone outlier geographically, Hawai’i does have some unique accommodations within the conference to account for the huge travel distances. For example, the school’s football team plays only one conference road game per season on the mainland United States.

They play the rest of their MWC road games against other members in California and Nevada.

Since joining the Mountain West, Hawai’i has found reasonable success competing against its new conference foes. The football team has registered four winning seasons and appeared in three bowl games. Meanwhile, the men’s basketball program won an MWC Tournament title in 2016 and secured three postseason bids.

Hawaii’s Football Program

Hawaii football in the Mountain West

The University of Hawaii’s football team competes in the Mountain West Conference, which it joined in 2012 after spending a decade as a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). Playing in the Mountain West has provided great exposure and exciting matchups for the Rainbow Warriors against teams like Boise State, Fresno State, and San Diego State.

As a member of the MW, Hawaii has seen its fair share of highs and lows. In 2016, Hawaii went 7-7 overall and finished tied for second in the West Division under head coach Nick Rolovich. However, the next three seasons saw the Rainbow Warriors win just 11 total games.

The team showed signs of improvement in 2021 under new coach Todd Graham, going 6-7 with an appearance in the EasyPost Hawaii Bowl.

While Hawaii will likely never be a perennial conference championship contender given its remote location and lack of local recruits, the passionate fans in Honolulu have proven they will continue to fill the stands at Clarence T.C. Ching Athletics Complex regardless of the team’s record.

Homefield advantage is strong on the Islands!

Hawaii’s other football conference affiliations

Prior to joining the Mountain West in 2012, Hawaii spent a decade playing football in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) alongside teams like Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada, and Louisiana Tech. The Rainbow Warriors enjoyed one of their best seasons as a member of the WAC in 2007, going 12-1 overall and earning a trip to the Sugar Bowl under head coach June Jones.

Hawaii was also a member of the old Pacific Coast Athletic Association from 1949-1968, winning conference championships in 1965 and 1966. Additionally, the program competed as an independent for 22 seasons before joining the WAC in 1999.

Clearly, conference affiliation has always been a bit fluid for Hawaii football!

Regardless of which league they’ve been in, the constant for Hawaii has always been playing most of its games on the beautiful Islands in front of the loyal fans that call Aloha Stadium home. The 2020 season was disrupted by COVID-19, forcing Hawaii to play road games against conference opponents, but the Rainbow Warriors were excited to be back home in 2021.

Hawaii in Other Collegiate Sports

Men’s Sports

The University of Hawaii has had great success in several men’s sports in addition to football and basketball. Their baseball team has made multiple College World Series appearances, including finishing as runner-up in 2010.

The volleyball team is also one of the best in the country, having won three national championships in the last decade (2018, 2019, 2021).

In other sports, Hawaii has competitive men’s teams in sports like golf, tennis, swimming and diving, and surfing. Their surf team has won back-to-back national titles in 2022 and 2023. With the island’s strong surf culture, it’s no surprise Hawaii produces top talent in the sport.

The swim team is also strong, helped by access to both outdoor pools and the Pacific Ocean for training.

Women’s Sports

The Hawaii women’s teams find plenty of success as well. The basketball team made the NCAA Tournament last season and frequently contends in the Big West conference. The volleyball team made it all the way to the Final Four in 2021 and starts this season ranked 9th nationally.

The softball team has also done well, making the NCAA Tournament three times since 2015. With elite pitching and hitting, they pulled off a major upset of #5 Washington in last year’s regional. Other standout women’s programs include golf, tennis, cross country, soccer, and surfing.

The surf team won back-to-back titles alongside the men’s team.


In summary, the state of Hawaii is something of an outlier when it comes to college sports conferences. Due to its extreme geographic isolation in the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii does not fit neatly into any of the major continental conferences and has had an evolving relationship over the decades.

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