Courtesy BYU Photo
BYU defensive tackle Handsome Tanielu (92) tries to tackle Mississippi State running back Aeris Williams at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, Miss., on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017.
At other places they might have one or two guys but here, half our floor has Polynesians. We can relate to them. —BYU running backs coach Reno Mahe

HONOLULU — For about half a century, Hawaii has been fertile recruiting ground for the BYU football program.

And that’s one of the big reasons why the Cougars enjoy playing at Hawaii, as they will Saturday (7 p.m., MST, CBSSN) at Aloha Stadium — to maintain and strengthen their presence, and their recruiting foothold, here.

And recruiting is as important as ever, given BYU’s epic struggles this season.

“Whenever you get a chance to play in Hawaii, we’ll gain some fans,” said linebackers coach Steve Kaufusi. “Kids in junior high and high school will come watch the game and will get a chance to watch BYU play. They’ll feel something and off they go. It always helps with recruiting, that’s for sure. It’s great exposure and visibility in Hawaii.”

The Aloha State produces plenty of college and NFL talent, such as quarterback Marcus Mariota, the former Oregon star who became the first Hawaii-born player to win the Heisman Trophy, in 2014, and now plays for the Tennessee Titans.

“Recruiting Hawaii is huge,” said running backs coach Reno Mahe, who plans on remaining in the Aloha State after BYU’s game Saturday to recruit on the islands. “It’s one of those things where we’re pretty limited, recruiting-wise. Back in the day, BYU and coach (Ron McBride) from Utah had their niche in the islands. Now the secret’s out. You have tons of kids going all over the place. You still try to find your group of kids that can come here. It’s small. You’ve got to find them wherever you can that can come in and help us compete with the type of schedule that we have.”

BYU has numerous Polynesians on its coaching and support staffs, starting with head coach Kalani Sitake, who is the first-ever Tongan FBS head coach.

“When you have a Polynesian head coach and the type of staff we have, a lot of these kids can relate. You have a lot of different schools that make sure they have a Polynesian on their staff,” Mahe said. “You get kids who come to BYU and they’ll visit some of the biggest schools. But they feel like it’s not just one coach. It’s the program, it’s the culture here. I think that helps us with recruiting and Hawaii. At other places they might have one or two guys but here, half our floor has Polynesians. We can relate to them.”

BYU currently has 40 Polynesian players on its roster, including a handful of players from Hawaii like defensive lineman Handsome Tanielu and linebacker Johnny Tapusoa.

Over the years, Hawaii has produced a bunch of stars for the Cougars, like Kurt Gouveia, Itula Mili and Aaron Francisco who have made a major impact on the program.

"We've never had a team without key Polynesian players," legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards once said.

Sitake, who grew up in Hawaii, enjoys the idea of playing the Rainbow Warriors on a regular basis.

“A lot of the Polynesians on the team have connections (in Hawaii). It’s like the gateway to the United States, coming through Hawaii,” he said. “A lot of us have roots there and there’s a lot of family and fan support, too. The (LDS) Church is strong in the state of Hawaii. I anticipate there will be a lot of fans there and we’re excited to play for them … We’re really familiar with Hawaii. We follow them closely as Polynesian people because you have a lot of people there that you know. I remember being a kid and going to Aloha Stadium. It was wild cheering for BYU in that stadium. It’s been fun. I’m looking forward to keeping this game going. They will be here (in Provo) next year.”

BYU director of player personnel, Jack Damuni, who also hails from Hawaii, is grateful that BYU became a destination for Polynesian athletes decades ago.

“BYU was the first Polynesian Pipeline," Damuni said. "We were the melting pot of college football for Polynesian players."

BYU created a recruiting stronghold in Hawaii in the 1960s when former assistant coach Chris Apostol traveled to the islands a couple of times a year to mine for talent. At that time, there was virtually no competition.

Later, when Edwards took the reins of the program, he scheduled games at Hawaii to increase BYU’s exposure there. And a lot of outstanding players streamed to Provo to play football.

By the early 1970s, other schools around the country took notice and began recruiting Hawaii.

"After we had some success, Arizona State started coming, then USC and Michigan State," Apostol once said.

And as Mahe said, when it comes to recruiting, Hawaii’s not a secret anymore.

• • •

Cougars on the air

BYU (3-9)

at Hawaii (3-8)

Saturday, 7 p.m. MST Aloha Stadium

TV: CBS Sports TV

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM