Utah football: Polynesian connection continues to thrive for Utes
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."
Pouha praised the program for maintaining an inviting atmosphere.
"It's a real comfortable place and something that's very attractive that I think a lot of Polynesians like to be a part of when they feel that spirit there," he said.
Kauha'aha'a, who was raised in a small village in Hawaii and was recruited to Utah by McBride, said a lot of the atmosphere up on the hill fits into how Polynesian players were brought up. They've been taught to work hard, make the most of things, show respect for leaders and be obedient.
"When you add us onto a team, we bring a real family atmosphere to a group," Kauha'aha'a said. "For some reason, our kids do a nice job drawing everybody in. But that's just how we're raised."
The family atmosphere is something players feel upon visiting the program, he continued. It's a lot like home.
"That was one of the factors in my decision," said Woods Cross High senior-to-be Felipo Mokofisi, who plans to sign with the Utes in February. "I knew right away that was my school."
Mokofisi, one of four Polynesian players to give the Utes an early recruiting commitment, is following in the footsteps of his father of the same name — a star player for the Utes in the '80s.
"It's just a good environment over there at the U.," the younger Mokofisi said while expressing appreciation for the ethnic diversity in the program. "I like that about the U. They are the most diverse school in the nation. I found that really interesting."
Utah's situation has also drawn intrigue from players from other programs. In speaking with them, Pouha has learned that they admire how well connected guys are at the University of Utah. From past greats like Luther Elliss to current standouts like Star Lotulelei, there's a bond.
"I think it's the fraternity and it's the brotherhood that kind of keeps us all together," said Pouha, who works out at his alma mater in the offseason and is joined by friends like "adopted Ute" Haloti Ngata of the Baltimore Ravens. "We've got guys coming from all over."
The same can be said of Utah's recruiting efforts. Although the primary focus is in-state, as well as California and Texas, players from places like Hawaii and Las Vegas are also in the mix.
"Not only is it diverse with ethnicity, but I think geographically we have a lot of mixture with guys from California, guys from Utah, guys from Hawaii," Pouha said. "Those are three very diverse geographical places and you bring them all together."
The search for recruits has been refined in recent years, especially with Polynesian players. Whittingham noted that the majority of them used to come from Hawaii.
"We still have connections there, but the majority of the Polynesian athletes are coming from in-state, Texas and California," he said. "So we no longer have to leave the mainland to get the Polynesian athletes in our program."
A growing population in Utah, enhanced by the LDS Church influence and the rising popularity of the annual All Poly Camp in Bountiful, has made such searches easier.
And there's more to it.
Whittingham said the Utes have maintained a good standing in the tight-knit community.
"We've had so many Polynesian athletes that have had success that we've developed a very good reputation among their culture as a place that is a good option for their sons to play football," he explained. "It's been a big key to our success."
Utah football: Polynesians in the program
Siaosi Aiono (OL); Kaeo Alo (FB); Isaac Asiata (OL); Afa Bridenstine (LB); Nick Brown (LB); Nate Fakahafua (DE); Seni Fauonuku (DT); VJ Fehoko (LB); LT Filiaga (LB); Moses Folauhola (DL); Kala Friel (OL); Latu Heimuli (OL); Lio Lafaele (OL); Harvey Langi (RB); Ofa Latu (LB); Niasi Leota (DT); Star Lotulelei (DT); Hiva Lutui (OL); Johnny Mahe (FB); Tevita Malafu (DL); Max Moala (FB); Kendrick Moeai (TE); Moana Ofahengaue (DL); Thretton Palamo (DE); Tenny Palepoi (DT); Joape Pela (DT); Nua Poteki (OT); Jeremiah Poutasi (OT); Marc Pouvave (OL); David Rolf (TE); Junior Salt (DT); Tevita Stevens (OL); Sefa Tanoai (TE/DE); Pasoni Tasini (DE) Percy Taumoelau (OL); Jeremiah Tofaeono (OL); Westlee Tonga (TE); LT Tuipulotu (DT); Derek Tuimauga (OL); Vaha Vainuku (DT)
Kalani Fifita Sitake (assistant head coach/defensive coordinator/linebackers); Chad Kauha'aha'a (defensive line); Ilaisa Tuiaki (fullbacks/tight ends); Doug Elisaia (director of strength and conditioning).
2013 recruiting commitments
Siale Fakailoatonga (TE/Cottonwood HS); Lo Falemaka (OT/Cottonwood HS); Filipo Mokofisi (LB/Woods Cross HS); Leroy Tanoai (OT/Notre Dame HS, Calif.).
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