Dick Harmon: Mark Atuaia uses BYU education as an asset in Cougar recruiting plan

Published: Wednesday, April 17 2013 12:35 p.m. MDT

This is the final in a series of four columns centering on new faces involved in football recruiting at BYU.

People associated with college football have long heard stories of players getting completed assignments put in a brown envelope and slid under the door — schools making it easy for students to play football.

When things come that easily, it’s using, not educating.

Selling education — that’s what Mark Atuaia believes he can do when he tells a different story, his own, as he recruits football players for BYU. Bronco Mendenhall hired Atuaia to coach BYU’s running backs under returned offensive coordinator Robert Anae. Both Atuaia and Anae grew up on the North Shore of Oahu and attended Kahuku High.

Atuaia believes his experiences as a young kid, who at one time struggled to take education seriously even when his father was a school teacher at Kahuku, has uniquely prepared him to sell BYU to athletes who don’t think they can make it academically or socially in Provo.

And it doesn’t help a player to find an easy way, as some recruiters sell prospects.

Atuaia faced an uphill battle to get a degree. But he did it and then he graduated from law school. He is now a true believer that college can change lives.

“My experience at BYU has been great. It has been filled with a lot of ups and downs, challenges, a grind at times, and there are hardships I have had to endure at BYU. It has been a refining experience for me.

“It’s been almost 20 years since I left my little town of Kahuku and never in my life did I ever think I would be a coach at this school and represent BYU in this manner, with its most highly visible program. I take that seriously and with high regard to the challenge and when I go recruiting that is exactly what I’ll tell recruits.

“I am a guy who came from a very low socioeconomic status who used sports as a silver bullet to get out and at the time I didn’t have education nearly at the forefront of my mind.

“And now here I am. BYU has helped me to garner and to earn a spot in life and I’m never going to turn my back on BYU and the things I have learned and been blessed with for my family.”

I asked Atuaia what he thought of opposing recruiters who tell athletes they can’t make it at BYU, that they are set up to fail, that they won’t be taken care of, and that the Honor Code will be too restrictive for them.

Atuaia said he’ll counter that by working on prospects early. He will sell hope and the benefit of a structured life that will enhance their futures — whether or not they make it in the NFL.

“The academic standards to get into any college are set and you know that from an early age. Everybody knows that to qualify as an athlete, it all starts at ninth grade. I guess the cycle that happens, and I speak from my own experience, is when you come from where I did you don’t really think about college until you start getting attention and looks. Fortunately for me, my father was a school teacher and my mother worked at the school, so education was very important. Even with their help, it was a challenge for me. It was hard.”

To say a kid won’t fit at BYU is a short sell, says Atuaia.

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