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Dick Harmon: BYU football program increases efforts to recruit Polynesians

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 6:31 a.m. MDT

Ex-Cougar Gabriel Reid (42), here in action in 2002,  says BYU is doing more to pursue Polynesian players now. (Jason Olson) Ex-Cougar Gabriel Reid (42), here in action in 2002, says BYU is doing more to pursue Polynesian players now. (Jason Olson)

Editor's Note: This concludes a two-part series of commentaries looking at BYU's increased recruiting strategy among Polynesian communities.

Growing up in Samoa, Gabriel Reid was a decent football player and a member of the LDS faith. It was expected in Samoa that any player with talent who was a Mormon would play football at BYU.

"That's just the way it was back then," said Reid, who played for the Cougars from 2000-02 and the Chicago Bears from 2003-06. His brother Spencer also played for BYU.

Today, it appears BYU's football staff is trying take advantage of that interest by Polynesian families and their ties to the church. Many big and small college football programs have tapped into Polynesian athletic talent over the decades.

University of Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who committed to BYU out of Bingham High, is projected by some to be the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

Recruiting Polynesia? Local talent?

Nobody does it better than Utah and BYU.

It appears BYU is working hard to use its advantages and shift more attention to how it manages and approaches players of Polynesian descent.

Head coach Bronco Mendenhall recently dispatched offensive coordinator Brandon Doman to Samoa for a goodwill tour.

"They rolled out the red carpet for him," said Reid.

For BYU and Utah, recruiting South Pacific bloodlines has paid off big time and is a mainstay of their respective football programs. Of Utah's seven commitments for 2013 so far, it appears six recruits pledged are of Polynesian decent. Of BYU's 19, eight fall into this ethnic group.

For Mendenhall, recruiting the Polynesian community should be like fishing in a barrel because of the LDS tradition among two and three generations of immigrants.

If BYU fails to cultivate, manage and reap the benefits, it is a major failure.

Census records show in 1990 there were 3,904 Tongans in Utah. That number doubled to 8,665 in 2000. The next decade the Tongan numbers in the state increased by 52 percent to 13,235. While Samoan migration to Utah started much slower, it has caught up and an equal number from that country now reside in Utah.

Most Tongans and Samoans who moved to Utah did so because of the LDS faith. Both countries have LDS high schools and the church recently closed a similar campus in Hamilton, New Zealand. Combine that with popular BYU-Hawaii, and the church educational system has proved a major part of the lives of LDS faithful in the South Pacific.

It has been reported that 46 percent of the Kingdom of Tonga is LDS. There is a higher per capita of LDS in Tonga than any country in the world.

This past month, Mendenhall invited LDS leaders of Utah's Polynesian stakes to meet with him. "He reached out to stake presidents and other ecclesiastical leaders who were Polynesian. He explained his vision and how much he needs their help in making sure those who are interested in what BYU has to offer, has that opportunity. He explained the standards, academic policies," said Reid, a member of the Provo Wasatch Tongan Stake high council.

"It takes a village to raise a child," said Reid. "Mendenhall said if he has a football player who is struggling, he wants to reach out to their stake president, who can make some phone calls in the community to rally and help. This was a great move by Bronco."

There are three Tongan LDS stakes in Utah. The Provo Wasatch Tongan Stake stretches from Lehi to Santaquin in Utah County. It includes eight wards and two branches, and four of the units are Samoan.

Reid sees the recent hire of former Cougar running back Mark Atuaia as an assistant athletic director at BYU as a move by the school to reach out to the Polynesian community as a specialist, a liaison that is long overdue.

Atuaia, one of Hawaii's most celebrated high school stars while at powerhouse Kahuku High on the North Shore of Oahu, is Samoan and beloved from Laie to Provo. He has a best-selling CD as a singer in Hawaii and his wife was the lead singer for the Jets when that rock group was popular more than a decade ago.

This move followed the trip by Doman to Samoa, where he told gatherings of athletes and coaches and their parents the importance of Polynesian football players to BYU's program.

"For BYU, coming on the island to recruit is only a natural thing for us to do. Our roots and our foundation of Polynesian culture has been here for years and years at BYU," Doman told the Deseret News after his whirlwind trip to American Samoa.

"We have 37 Polynesian kids on our team, more than anybody in the country. It had been a few years since we had been (to American Samoa). It was very important that we return to the island. There are fans, alumni and former players on that island that are supportive of BYU football and BYU in general. If there's ever a place of great resource in the Polynesian community, that is the place. That was the reason for the trip out there. Hopefully we'll find a handful of kids over the next few years that will come here to BYU."

Whatever shortcomings BYU has shown in past years with Polynesian relations since LaVell Edwards left the program, it appears to Reid and others, the school is addressing those issues.

Mendenhall recently asked Reid and other former Cougar players to meet with a Polynesian prospect on campus and explain their experiences. "He ended up committing to Mendenhall," said Reid of the local prospect. "I think meeting with alums helped with him and his parents."

BYU just employed Jason Kaufusi, brother of D-line coach Steve Kaufusi, as a graduate assistant coach as Samoan Shawn Nu'a accepted a job at Navy after completing his graduate work on the football staff.

In staffing a major college football staff with Polynesians, few have done as well as Kyle Whittingham at Utah. Counting defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, others with South Pacific ties include fullbacks/tight end coach Ilaisa Tuiaki, defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a and strength and conditioning coach Doug Elisaia.

Utah's staff has proved a great asset to Ute Polynesian players and the success is all over Utah's record since Whittingham followed Urban Meyer, although it is an emphasis that dates back to the Ron McBride era.

Both BYU and Utah have tapped Polynesian players for half a century. But there might be more of an onus on BYU to do so, noting its unique religion card. It must be a specialty.

In this regard, BYU has room to grow. The recent hire of Atuaia as an assistant athletic director to Tom Holmoe, speaks to that need.

"Former ASU star and Oakland Raider Junior Ioane has volunteered to help with the BYU football team," said Reid. "He loves BYU."

Officially, BYU doesn't utilize volunteers due to possible infractions, and although Ioane has been seen working out on campus, his presence is unofficial.

So, in the past six months since BYU defeated Tulsa in a bowl game, has BYU developed an enhanced strategy in recruiting Polynesian football players?

"Absolutely," said Reid. "No question."

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