In the fall of 2003, LaVell and Patti Edwards were serving a church public affairs mission in New York City and I had just been released as bishop of my New Jersey LDS ward and called to be the public affairs director for the Philadelphia region.
Truth is, none of us really knew what we were doing, but our new callings brought us together and that was good enough for me.
Part of their responsibility was training public affairs directors in the Northeast, so I quickly signed up and added a stake fireside to the training, meaning I'd have them in my home for an entire weekend. I chose the weekend when the Eagles had a bye so head coach Andy Reid and his wife, Tammi, could join us along with BYU alums and then-current Eagles Chad Lewis, Reno Mahe and Justin Ena. We made a BYU reunion of it — adding former New York Giants center Bart Oates. A few others flew in from Utah with their families and some from various other places.
It was a memorable weekend, mostly because of the chats we had with LaVell and Patti as we cleaned up late into the night after everyone left. It was fun, inspirational, illuminating and enlightening.
We laughed till it hurt as LaVell and Patti regaled us with stories and the background of some of the iconic and legendary moments in BYU football history. Some stories were known only among the staff and players and it seemed many of those were about fights: Assistant coaches Garth Hall and Norm Chow exchanging blows in the Utah State coaches' box at halftime in 1980; defensive tackle Pulusila Filiaga's ejection after punching a ref at that same game; quarterbacks coach Mike Holmgren and tight end David Mills having to be separated at halftime in Pittsburgh in 1984; and LaVell evicting me from Helaman Halls my freshman year after a fight with a teammate at John Hall as a compromise with the Standards Office, which wanted to suspend me and revoke my scholarship.
We were all wound pretty tight in an uber competitive setting, but LaVell himself was always loose as a goose, perhaps by design. For me, it was a wake-up call of just how close I came to losing such an enormous opportunity.
Throughout his career, LaVell made a habit of saving many of us from ourselves. He provided us with second and third chances and few of us ever wanted to disappoint him. The list of guys who returned from academic or honor code suspensions is long and a matter of public record. Many of them, like Glen Kozlowski and Reno Mahe, returned more committed to being better students and living their faith.
LaVell believed in the core goodness of his men. He trusted us as players until we proved otherwise. When we traveled to Hawaii in my era, Waikiki Beach was never off-limits until my senior year, when a couple of pasty linemen got severely sunburned; thereafter it was forbidden.
LaVell had few enemies, though you certainly didn't want to cross him.
Offensive lineman Brad Oates attended Duke as a freshman in the early 1970s and immediately longed for BYU, where others shared his LDS faith as he realized he had virtually nothing in common with his teammates, except football. Oates called LaVell but was told BYU was out of scholarships. Undaunted, Oates moved forward with his plans to transfer anyway. Things got ugly when he informed his Duke coach, who called LaVell and cursed him up and down for "tampering" with his player. LaVell listened calmly until the Duke coach finished. Only then did LaVell speak. "Coach," LaVell said softly, "when you called I didn't have a scholarship. But the longer you spoke, it occurred to me that Brad could easily slip into a scholarship vacated by an outbound missionary."
Then, LaVell dropped the hammer.
"But this much is clear ... You don't deserve to coach a kid like Brad Oates. I will find a spot for him." Click.
Oates transferred and played at BYU, graduated and was drafted by the Cardinals. While playing in both the NFL and USFL, Oates earned a juris doctor degree in the offseason from the J. Reuben Clarke Law School. Brad's younger brothers Barry and Bart also followed him to BYU and became solid players in their own right.
LaVell was committed to us and we to him.
When I was called as a bishop 20 years ago, I immediately informed three people: my father, my mission president and LaVell. Coach Edwards offered this advice, which is more insightful against the backdrop of his career: "Vai, much of our success stemmed from what I learned as a young bishop.
"The church encourages bishops to focus on the youth. That's why I spent more time interviewing you players and allowed my assistants to coach, to handle the X's and O's. Choose good auxiliary leaders and counselors and allow them to run the ward while you focus on the youth. Know them by name; attend their games, plays and recitals. Go on campouts, chaperone their dances, be present at youth conference. Just follow up with those auxiliary leaders but let them lead and give them room to grow — they're learning too."
Is it any wonder LaVell's coaching tree included Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid, Brian Billick, Norm Chow, Doug Scovil, Ted Tollner, Tom Holmoe, Ed Lamb, Mike Leach, Kyle Whittingham, Kalani Sitake and perhaps even Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, who often called LaVell for professional and spiritual guidance since his days as a young graduate assistant at his alma mater, the University of Hawaii.
As a faithful Latter-day Saint, LaVell knew something his peers didn't fully appreciate.
Mormons have lots of kids.
As he sat in living rooms with those families, LDS fathers and mothers instinctively gathered all of their children to meet him. LaVell always made note of those with younger brothers. He rarely missed. However, his biggest miss turned out to be a boon for the program for the duration of his tenure at BYU and to this day.
LaVell told me that the so-called "Pipeline-to-Polynesia" actually started in the late 1950s by BYU assistant coach Chris Apostol, but became more focused in the late 1960s and early '70s because of an Arizona State player named Junior Ah You. Junior's great-grandfather was a successful Chinese merchant from Canton, living in Pago Pago at the turn of the 20th century, who was married to a Samoan woman.
Junior and his siblings grew up in affluence as their parents owned land, a store, a restaurant and buses. What they lacked was only offered in a few places on the planet, one of them in Laie, Hawaii: temple ordinances. So, in 1957 (a year before the dedication of the Hamilton New Zealand Temple), the Ah Yous sold all of their possessions and immigrated to the North Shore of Oahu when Junior was 9 years old to be sealed as an eternal family in the Laie Temple. At Kahuku High, Junior Ah You simply could not be blocked and his great ambition was to play for the church school, BYU. Unfortunately, BYU didn't notice. So he went to ASU, where he was a consensus All-American and is in its hall of fame and ring of honor as one of ASU's all-time greats. Along the way, the standout defensive end made a career of torturing BYU quarterbacks.
"I always played my best games against BYU to prove to them they should've offered me," Junior told me. "I remember the exact spot at Sun Devil Stadium where Coach Edwards stopped me, introduced himself and hugged me. He said, 'Great game, Junior. I'm so sorry we missed you. I don't know what happened, but it was a costly mistake.' He was so genuine. I just never forgot that moment."
A year or two later, LaVell signed his first Ah You, Junior's younger brother Charles, or "Sale," (SAH-LEH) as a running back.
Between Junior and Sale, four of their sons, two each, played football at BYU. A fifth, Sale's oldest boy Jasen, is now BYU's director of football athletic relations. Jasen's son and Sale's grandson, Chaz, is a four-star senior recruit and widely considered among the best safeties in the country at Timpview High. The Ah You cousins who have played in Provo and other big schools number in the dozens.
Junior's grandson Miki, only a sophomore at Kahuku High in Hawaii, already has a BYU offer on the table and may be a Cougar as was his father Kingsley, who is the president of the Laie Hawaii North Stake. Junior Ah You has 10 more grandsons younger than Miki, ready to go. Meanwhile, no other Ah Yous ever attended ASU. It ended with Junior but continued for another four decades and counting at BYU because of LaVell.
LaVell told me, "Junior Ah You forced us to recruit the North Shore because he wanted to be at BYU. We never even offered him and that's a Mormon community! It's filled with these huge kids because of their DNA and diet, who have quick feet and hands from performing their native dances. They're so physical because of their environment and trouble-free because of their culture and family upbringing."
As we reminisced into the early morning hours and it became increasingly quiet, LaVell became more introspective. "You know, Vai," he said almost in a whisper while fully reclined on the BarcaLounger, "since retirement, I wonder from time to time if the purpose of the program was to build championships or leadership."
You did both, Coach. Exceptionally well.
"... Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (Matthew 25:21).