|Article Last Updated: 07/17/2006 01:41:32 AM MDT|
College Football: Polynesian pipeline flows freely
BYU's monopoly of the islands is long gone
Kalani Sitake was typical of his generation - growing up on Hawaii's north shores, he dreamed of playing college football.
And the vision always took him to Brigham Young, where many of his kind had gone. In time, Sitake faithfully followed the path to Provo, donning the BYU blue as a running back.
During the program's glory days, which stretched almost over 20 years, BYU regularly had its pick of the top Polynesian players from the Pacific Islands. It seemed like there was an invisible bridge spanning the ocean from Laie, where many residents are members of the LDS Church, BYU's sponsoring institution, to Provo.
"With all the Mormon kids, BYU pretty much had anybody they wanted," said Weber State coach Ron McBride, who spent 13 years trying to cultivate a Polynesian connection as Utah's head coach.
Sitake was a classic example. Playing his senior year of high school in Missouri, he was recruited primarily by Midwest schools.
He even planned to play at Iowa, until BYU showed interest. When the names of all Sitake's childhood heroes flashed through his mind, the Hawkeyes had no chance.
"I could name 100 of them," said Sitake, now a linebackers coach at Utah. "There's always been a rich history of Polynesian players being there. I think it started with having so many LDS people in Hawaii. It was almost like a pipeline to BYU.
"I was a big BYU fan when I was growing up. The main factor was all the Polynesian players you see playing on there."
But those days are gone, changed by various reasons. BYU still gets a significant share of the market, as the 27 Polynesian players currently on the roster prove, but the program no longer has it cornered.
Not even in Laie, the home of BYU-Hawaii and an LDS temple.
"Kids aren't dumb nowadays in football," Sitake said. "They have so many different options."
Until the last 15 years, recruiting was regional. College programs tended to focus on players geographically suited to their schools. As the Internet and recruiting services exploded, high school players have drawn more exposure from schools farther from their homes.
Sitake attended a combine for high school players in Hawaii last month, as did BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae. They stood next to coaches from schools that years ago didn't recruit heavily on the islands.
"There wasn't a school that wasn't represented there," Sitake said. "Everybody recruits everywhere."
Over the years, schools such as Arizona State and Arizona have successfully recruited the Pacific islands. As Hawaii's head coach, Dick Tomey developed strong relationships with the locals and continued that connection when he coached Arizona.
After serving as an Arizona assistant in 1987-89, McBride began recruiting the islands hard when became Utah's head coach in 1990. By the time McBride hired Steve Kaufusi as a graduate assistant in 1994, Utah was raiding BYU's neighborhood.
After the Utes went 10-2 in 1994, they signed future stars Kautai Olevao and Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. By then, McBride became a trusted name in the South Pacific.
"We struck a
Through the McBride era, Utah substantially narrowed the gap with BYU. From 1972-1992, the Cougars lost only twice to their rivals on the field.
McBride's in-roads in Polynesian communities is among the reasons the Utes are 9-4 against BYU since 1993.
BYU's recruiting "slipped a little bit because I think maybe they were so used to kids coming to BYU because it was BYU, and then we were able to inch our way in," McBride said. "Before, BYU could get who they wanted."
Success began to feed off itself, as McBride proved LDS Polynesians could thrive at Utah. Kaufusi's recruiting success at Utah was among the reasons former BYU coach Gary Crowton lured him back to his alma mater as defensive line coach in 2002.
Sitake, who doesn't want to be pigeon-holed as a "Polynesian" coach, has continued the recruiting tradition. Under coach Kyle Whittingham, the Utes have more than 20 Polynesian players.
Several programs across the country have Polynesians, as the pool of quality players has increased substantially.
During the heavy recruiting months, Sitake travels to the islands once a week. He makes at least 12 trips a year.
"In the Polynesian culture, family is a strong faction of their culture," said Whittingham, who was in Hawaii last month. "If you gain the trust of the families, it almost has a snowball effect, where if their kids are going to be successful, they'll keep coming."
Utah coaches can expect to see plenty of blue on their Hawaiian trips. Second-year BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall intends to aggressively pursue Pacific Islanders.
Mendenhall's first move as BYU's coach was to hire Anae, whose hometown is Laie. Anae is a classic Polynesian success story, having played on BYU's 1984 national championship team after graduating from Kahuku High.
He also has a master's degree from Hawaii and earned a doctorate from BYU in 1990. He forms a potent combination with Kaufusi.
"It just helps to have two coaches on our staff that are very well-connected," Mendenhall said. "It gives us an alliance in terms of knowledge and contacts in the Polynesian culture throughout the United States."
* For years, BYU enjoyed unrivaled success with the top Polynesian recruits.
* Utah began to make inroads in the Pacific when Ron McBride, now with Weber State, took over as the Utes' coach in 1990.
* Both BYU and Utah have more than 20 Polynesians on their rosters.