Sitake seeking to reestablish LaVell Edwards-era ‘Poly pipeline’

Defensive end Hala Paongo leads the Cougars in the Haka before a game in 2005. The Haka is a tradional Maori war dance that proclaims strength and prowess. (Robbie Preece)
Defensive end Hala Paongo leads the Cougars in the Haka before a game in 2005. The Haka is a tradional Maori war dance that proclaims strength and prowess. (Robbie Preece)

In Cottonwood Heights, at Brighton High School, Simi Fehoko finished with 59 catches for 1,495 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was named the Gatorade Player of the Year for Utah in 2015. In Massachusetts, former University of Utah defensive tackle Sealver Siliga practiced under Bill Belichick as a member of the New England Patriots. At the BYU indoor practice facility, offensive lineman Ului Lapoaho does offseason training with the rest of the Cougars.

But regardless of where these players are now, they all have roots in small islands in the South Pacific like Tonga, American Samoa and Hawaii.

Fifty years ago, these islands hardly seemed like a hotbed for football recruiting. But former BYU head football coach LaVell Edwards explained to the Deseret News in 1997 the importance of Polynesian players to BYU’s success.

“They’ve made a major impact,” Edwards said. “We’ve never had a team without key Polynesian players.”

Today, the same is true for the Cougars. There’s been a conscious effort every season to find the best Polynesian players and get them to Provo.

But as the years went on, more and more schools began to catch wind of the “Poly pipeline.” Schools like Arizona State and USC found their way to the islands to recruit. Now things are easier on the recruiting front. Schools from all conferences, and from all across the nation make their way to Utah each year to scout the All-Poly football camp.

As a result, BYU no longer gathered the same level of Polynesian talent as they were previously accustomed to having.

But with the hiring of Kalani Sitake as Bronco Mendenhall’s replacement, Alta High School head coach Alema Te’o expects everything to change.

Te’o is the founder of the All-Poly Camp, which typically showcases over 1,000 Polynesian players each year in Layton. Te’o told the Deseret News that Sitake’s hiring would be a game-changer.

“If this happens, it would be a huge advantage for BYU going forward,” Te’o said just days before Sitake was hired. “Because of the trust he has as a mentor and leader in Polynesian communities across the globe.”

Sitake’s recruiting prowess begins with the familial expectations of the Polynesian people.

“Family” is used often by college teams. “Band of Brothers” was a prominent slogan of BYU’s for awhile. But for Polynesian athletes, it’s more than a slogan. It’s quite literally a way of life. For many, these deep connections go hand-in-hand with their religious beliefs.

Shortly after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was established in 1830 missionaries were sent to Hawaii and other small islands of Polynesia. They found great success there and converted many to the LDS Church. In the late 1800’s, many of these new LDS faithful moved to Salt Lake in order to do temple service. Today, the Salt Lake area is home to one of the largest Polynesian communities in the United States.

This is reflected in the University of Utah’s football team. The Utes had 33 Polynesian players on the roster last season and it creates another challenge for recruiting. Now it isn’t enough to just flip the “Poly pipeline,” but Sitake must win the in-state recruiting battle.

He has his work cut out for him.

Many of the top Polynesian players are committing to the University of Utah, or to major schools in California (specifically USC). One of the more notable players the Cougars failed to get in recent memory was offensive lineman Damien Mama.

Mama, an LDS recruit in the class of 2014, received a scout grade of 84 and was ranked as the No. 67 prospect on the ESPN 300. He committed to the USC, telling that BYU “just wasn’t the right fit” for him. He went on to cite the legacy of Polynesian players at USC, adding that he wants to add to that tradition.

Sitake has already been hard at work finding the next crop of BYU football stars to add to BYU’s football tradition. At his introductory press conference Sitake joked more than once that they should wrap it up so he could “get (back) to work.”

The Cougars may already be seeing the fruits of Sitake’s labor. Just hours after he was hired, four-star junior college defensive tackle Handsome Tanielu — a Hawaii native — committed to BYU. Tanielu had previously committed to Utah, but due to Sitake heavily recruiting him while the defensive coordinator at Oregon State, Tanielu flipped his commitment.

Tanielu said on Twitter that he was “following (his) heart.”

Sitake and his staff unveiled BYU’s 2016 recruiting class on Feb. 3. Of 26 commits, 14 were Polynesian. Some, like Tustin, California’s Alema Pilimai, flipped their commitments from other schools to become Cougars.

At the Signing Day press conference offensive coordinator Ty Detmer said Sitake’s personality makes him a great recruiter.

“He’s just very genuine,” Detmer said. “He really does get personal with people.”

Things are just beginning for Sitake – this was his first Signing Day as a head coach – but it certainly seems like he’s well on his way to making BYU football and Polynesian players synonymous once again. Beyond the players, Sitake has filled his coaching staff with Polynesians. Nine members of Sitake’s staff have Polynesian roots.

Tuiaki said that Sitake and the rest of the staff aren’t afraid of going after big-name recruits.

“Obviously, I can’t talk much about recruits,” Tuiaki said at his introductory press conference. “But, we’re just trying to get after the best players that are the best fit for BYU. We’re trying to get the best players and trying to get the best fit. We’ll go against anybody. It doesn’t matter who is recruiting them, we’ll go after them.”

But Sitake isn’t taking anything for granted. He stressed the importance of recruiting, noting that being of the LDS faith shouldn’t warrant an instant commitment.

“They should feel obligated just because they’re LDS to come to BYU,” Sitake said.

This strategy is something BYU didn’t have under former head coach Bronco Mendenhall, who repeatedly said he wanted “kids who recruit BYU.”

But it isn’t just about new incoming players. The current Polynesian players on the roster are just as excited.

“He played here,” Lapuaho told the Daily Herald. “So he knows the struggles and the challenges that are specific to BYU. I know he can relate to us. He walked in our shoes.”

Sitake and the Cougars take on Arizona to kickoff their 2016 schedule on Sept. 3 and BYU football media day will be June 30.

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