"That's in respect to their customs and that's the thing I think we really have ... we understand the culture."
They understand the culture so well, in fact, that Oregon State has become one of the leaders in recruiting and retaining players from Hawaii.
It's no secret that Riley often emphasizes the family atmosphere at Oregon State when recruiting players. The Beavers like to think of themselves as a brotherhood -- they even boast five sets of brothers, the most in FBS. That reputation serves them particularly well in the Polynesian community, where extended family is big in the literal and metaphorical sense.
Currently there are 16 players from the state on the Beavers roster. But none of them prepped at Kapolei High School on the island of Oahu. OSU hopes the inroads they've made elsewhere in Hawaii help change that this year, as they recruit four standouts from the Hurricanes football team.
Running back Dustin Elisara, defensive lineman Foi Foi and linebackers Shaydon Akuna and Tuu Lolohea are all seriously considering Oregon State. In order to persuade a group of local boys to leave the islands and travel 3,000 miles to Corvallis, Riley & Co. will have to sell the strong Polynesian community the Beavers have built, one of the most prominent in the college ranks.
"In recruiting anywhere it's about relationships, but it's probably magnified in that state," Banker said. "It's important they know they have an external family they can trust."
Starting the pipeline
According to Banker, OSU's recruiting ties to Hawaii date to the mid-1960s, when the Beavers had "23 to 25 Polynesians on the roster." Anxious to utilize their connections, Banker and Riley began reaching out to players in Hawaii during the 1997-98 season, stressing the tight-knit community and family atmosphere Corvallis offers.
"Word travels fast," Banker said. "Once we were able to establish a grassroots foundation over there ... that's where the pipeline started."
Kapolei (pronounced COP-o-lay) has not been a part of that pipeline so far, but that is mostly due to being young. The high school opened in 2000, but the Hurricanes have only been playing varsity football for seven years.
"We're still being discovered," said Kapolei coach Darren Hernandez.
Last week, Akuna and Elisara came on official visits to OSU for the Stanford game, and walked away impressed.
"The standard is high now," said Akuna, who is ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 1 player in Hawaii and the No. 9 linebacker in the country. "I don't wanna commit yet, but I really liked Oregon State. Everything was perfect."
Elisara took immediate notice to how many Polynesian players he met.
"I felt right at home," Elisara, a three-star recruit, said. "It's hard to leave the islands when you're a local boy. In order you leave you must feel really comfortable.
"Obviously something is working at Oregon State."
'Just like back home'
Of all the current Beavers they met last weekend, Elisara and Akuna said the Unga brothers stood out to them the most.
Uani and Feti Unga are freshmen linebackers from Kahuku High School, a powerhouse in Hawaii known for turning out elite football players. Former OSU standouts Jeremy Perry and Al Afalava -- now with the Chicago Bears -- as well as current players Suaesi Tuimaunei and Walker Vave, all came from Kahuku.
"They kept telling me that Oregon State is just like back home," Akuna said. "They don't think I'll get homesick."
A staple in Polynesian culture is music, and even if they're away from home, no one forgets that. Feti said that every Friday night before games, all the Polynesian players gather in one room at the team hotel for a "jam session."
"Right there they can see how close we are," Feti said.
Added Uani: "Guys who come here know that if they come to the mainland they don't have to lose their Poly values."
Of course, famous alumni carry some weight, too.
"I used to watch Al in high school and think, 'That kid's damn good!'" said Lolohea, who had to cancel his visit last week but has been to OSU before.
"Seeing his picture all over the place at OSU, being in the stadium he played in, it makes me wanna go to Oregon State."
Other programs follow suit
Kapolei has started to develop a small channel of players to the Pacific-10 Conference. Of the 35-plus athletes Hernandez has sent on to college, two play in the conference right now. Simione Vehikite and Stanley Hasiak are freshmen at USC and UCLA, respectively.
Hernandez believes Oregon State has a little bit of a recruiting edge when courting Polynesian players but says "other programs are becoming smart in that way."
"I've got USC calling about Tuu and Akuna, trying to get a pipeline to Hawaii," Hernandez said. "All the Pac-10 schools are trying to find a little piece of Hawaii on their team."
Should OSU land any of the Kapolei players, no one will know until Feb. 3, signing day. That's because all of the Hurricanes plan to make coaches wait.
"That'll be more fun," laughed Elisara.
Akuna said he'll wait to decide, too, but knows one thing for sure -- he wants to come to the mainland.
"I'm ready to leave," he said. "I wanna go explore."
- Lindsay Schnell