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

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

BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia at spring practice on April 5, 2013. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo) BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia at spring practice on April 5, 2013. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo)

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.

BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia at spring practice on March 6, 2013. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo) BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia at spring practice on March 6, 2013. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo)

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.

BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia at spring practice on March 6, 2013. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo) BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia at spring practice on March 6, 2013. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo)

“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.

BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia at spring practice on March 22, 2013. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo) BYU running backs coach Mark Atuaia at spring practice on March 22, 2013. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo)

“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.

“That’s not totally accurate in a sense. We are looking for a fit for those who can live the Honor Code. But if a guy is shaky academically, if we catch him early, it’s easy for me to tell him that BYU is an option for him if he can do certain things. I was the same way and others I’ve known that have come through BYU have done the same things. With the general student body, there are high standards, but to say you are going to dispel BYU because you can’t make it, I’m a living testament that you can make it because I did. There are other examples I can tell recruits that will show how they can make it academically.

“Again, all I would say is a BYU degree, as compared to others who follow that mantra, is highly valued and respected in the business community and the degree says something.

“There are statistics that show that graduate schools look at BYU undergraduates and value their degrees. To put that with the best of the best of members of our faith, it’s a combination that is highly sought after. Folks like me who have come through, well I’m a total beneficiary of that kind of education and that’s a lasting impression that has been made on me and generations will have that to lean on.”

Says Atuaia: ”I’m excited to go out and share my story and tell kids BYU is a viable option for a guy that didn’t think he would amount to much and from circumstances that scream out that you aren’t going to amount to much.

“Not to say that I’ve made it, but I’m living proof that you can have something better than what you are achieving at that point if you are willing to work hard and abide by standards that will help you later in life.”

Atuaia subscribes to his boss' belief that to tell a recruit he’ll get him in the NFL, leaves out many important equations.

“Statistics Bronco uses about the NFL players who, after three years, have become substance abusers and are bankrupt, again, all those statistics are out there in the public record. BYU prepares an athlete to learn successful ways for a future life, to have an infrastructure to help you to win at everything, to have an NFL life, to manage your finances and obtains skills that will further your life, rather than living the fast life and having it end when you are done after the NFL. Those things are available at BYU. That is not to say they aren’t available elsewhere, but there is a structure that is set up to mold young men and that is the uniqueness of BYU that I haven’t found anywhere else from my experiences of hearing stories with other players who have been at other colleges. When they come here, that is what they tell me, that we are blessed to have what we have.”

Psychiatrist and author Gary Malone puts it this way: "Only 3 percent of high school athletes will go on to compete in college; less than 1 percent of college athletes turn pro, where the average career is three years with risk of permanent injury, including brain damage, for football players. Even if they’re among the successful elite, wealth management is likely to be a major problem; some studies show that up to 78 percent of NFL players go broke after three years of retirement. Is this the best future for a child?"

Atuaia has been assigned to recruit American Samoa, Hawaii, West Valley City and the California Inland Empire, which comprises some 4 million people in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties east of Los Angeles, the 12th most-populated metropolitan area of the United States.

A second Atuaia strength is his experience working as an assistant to BYU’s dean of students, Vernon Heperi. It was his first professional job.

“There are almost two campuses at BYU,” said Atuaia. One is the athletic department and other disciplines and then there is the administration. There is up there and there is down here.

“There isn’t any aspect of BYU’s administration, from admissions to the Honor Code, that I don’t understand because I’ve been there and interacted with everybody there. Part of the reason (athletic director Tom) Holmoe brought me down is to help the athletic department navigate there and to educate and understand how that part of BYU operates.”

Atuaia said he believes he can assist Mendenhall when he’s making decisions about players. “He makes those decisions, but I can help him, if he needs my help, to understand administrative processes.”

In short, Atuaia says the brand he’s asked to sell has been established long before he came on the scene and others have done a great job defining and selling it already.

“BYU is BYU and it is going to be BYU long after I’m gone. There are people who have prepared to come here all their lives and it is my job to seek them and sign them. There are those who need to be swayed and might waver and are being recruited by other places and those other places are good programs. But there is only one BYU. There is only one sponsoring institution of the church that plays football and that is us.”

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company