Utah football: Polynesian connection continues to thrive for Utes

Published: Saturday, June 16 2012 9:12 p.m. MDT

Sione Pouha #91 of the New York Jets reacts against the Minnesota Vikings at New Meadowlands Stadium on October 11, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Jim Mcisaac, Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's football roster is a melting pot of sorts. There's an almost equal blend of Polynesians, African-Americans and Caucasians on scholarship.

"I don't think there's any other team in the country that can make that claim," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "We feel we're a very diverse football team."

The diversity is a source of pride for the program.

"How awesome is it that you're able to use something like football to bring a lot of these guys together that probably wouldn't have an opportunity to be around the same setting?" said defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake. "But they're here in Salt Lake City and they're able to flourish as young men."

Channeling the different backgrounds and various ways the players were raised into a common goal of graduating from college and playing football, Sitake added, is what is most important to the coaching staff.

"When we recruit, we look for good young men that we can welcome into our family," Sitake said while acknowledging how nice it is to have guys with differing backgrounds work together and succeed. "That's just what it is."

Former Ute Sione Pouha of the New York Jets describes the Utah football program as a huge fraternity, complete with everything it entails such as loyalty and brotherhood.

"You're going to be a Ute for life," Pouha said before praising the efforts of head coaches Ron McBride, Urban Meyer and Whittingham. "They've all created a culture where the common goal is to win and to win a championship. Once you're common in your goal and once you have the same denominator, you just play where your numerator is."

Such an approach, he continued, is why the program is successfully blended.

"It doesn't seem as diversified as you might think it is because everybody is so united in one goal," Pouha said. "It's all about fitting into the fraternity."

Pouha noted that new recruits understand they're not just joining a football team but a culture.

"There's something family-like about it," he explained. "There's something 'brotherhood' about it."

It's an environment that has resonated especially well with the Polynesian community. Utah is believed to lead all BCS schools with 40 players from the islands. The Utes also rank first among BCS programs with eight Polynesian players on current NFL rosters. They're second only to USC in draft picks over the past decade.

"It all goes back to Coach McBride. Coach McBride started the Polynesian connection, I guess you could call it, at Utah," Whittingham said. "We've just taken that and expanded upon it. We've had great success with the Polynesian athlete here at Utah."

Sitake believes it has evolved into a tradition. Younger players have seen the success of players like Pouha, he said, and are eager to follow a similar path.

The coaches have also had a big influence on the numbers.

"I came in with Ron McBride and he has a big heart for Polynesian people," Pouha noted. "I think it just kind of went from Coach Mac, then came down to Urban. Coach Whit has always been in the swing of things in terms of recruiting and being around Polynesian student-athletes."

Utah's coaching staff reflects it. Whittingham has four full-time coaches of Polynesian descent assisting him. Besides Sitake, there's defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a, fullbacks/tight end coach Ilaisa Tuiaki, as well as strength and conditioning director Doug Elisaia.

"Not only are they in those positions but they do a darn good job of doing it," Pouha said. "I would hands down say that Doug Eliasia is probably the best strength coach in the country and I think Kalani is the best defensive coordinator in the country."

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