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Hawaii's Side of Wadsworth Affair: BYU knew 10 months ago that missionary wanted Provo over Paradise

Published April 30, 2012 4:38 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There are two sides to every story, right?

Last week we told you about the saga of former Hawaii football player Michael Wadsworth, a defensive back and special teams ace who is currently on an LDS Church mission in Leeds, England. Wadsworth returns home in June, and wants to live closer to home, which is now in Orem although he played his high school football in Las Vegas (Silverado) while his father was a mission president there for three years.

Specifically, Wadsworth now wants to play for BYU, a school that didn't offer him a scholarship out of high school. Only Hawaii and an Arizona school (Scout.com says it was Arizona; his father thinks it was ASU) did.

Problem is, Hawaii has blocked Wadsworth's transfer to BYU, pretty much saying he can talk to any other program in the country right now but the one for which he actually wants to play. Hawaii has denied BYU's request for permission to talk to Wadsworth and twice denied appeals from the missionary's family to reverse that decision.

Hawaii's decision essentially means the Cougars cannot give the young man financial grant-in-aid (aka a football scholarship and the perks that come with it such as priority class scheduling, training table, etc.) this coming fall.

The missionary's father, John Wadsworth, said his son has applied to and been accepted at BYU and will enroll there this fall, paying his own way. It is expected that Michael Wadsworth will walk on to the football team.

Hawaii athletic director Jim Donovan declined to discuss the matter with The Salt Lake Tribune last week, and school officials refused to make head coach Norm Chow available for comment, either.

John Wadsworth said last week Chow told him that he believes BYU has an unfair advantage when it comes to communicating with players who are on missions. That was the primary reason Chow gave him for denying the request, Wadsworth said.

However, through a source familiar with the situation (who wishes to remain anonymous), we have learned a little bit more as to why Hawaii singled out BYU.

Also, we've obtained a copy of a letter sent by BYU compliance coordinator Jennifer Funkhouser to Donovan, the Hawaii AD, that shows BYU athletic department officials knew at least 10 months ago that Wadsworth was at least exploring the idea of transferring to another school.

The letter dated July 6, 2011 on official BYU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics letterhead requests permission to contact the student-athlete.

"We are interested in speaking with one of your students," Funkhouser wrote. "Per NCAA Bylaw 13.1.1.3 we are requesting permission to speak with Michael Wadsworth, from the sport of Football."

Hawaii is not accusing BYU of cheating or wrongdoing, our source said, but has been annoyed by some statements from Wadsworth's father suggesting that BYU has had no role whatsoever in the situation. Comments from others that Chow is using a student-athlete, a missionary, no less, to stick it to BYU for passing him over years ago have also rankled the longtime coach.

Chad Gwilliam, BYU's Assistant Athletic Director for Compliance, confirmed Friday afternoon that his office sent the letter and that the request was denied by Donovan. But he would not divulge why his office became involved. Did a BYU football coach ask them to contact Hawaii? Or was it a member of Wadsworth's family, or perhaps Michael Wadsworth himself? Gwilliam isn't saying.

"It can honestly come from about anywhere," he said, speaking generally. "We have had coaches who might call up and say, hey, we heard this kid might be interested. I have received calls from family, or directly [from students]. ... Sometimes the kids will request the release themselves [from their own former schools]."

Gwilliam said once Donovan denied the request, BYU has stayed completely out of the process and has not been involved with any of the appeals.

"We can't have anything to do with that appeals process," he said. "That's not our role; that's between the original school and the athlete and/or their family."

Gwilliam said such requests are fairly common between compliance officers. He said BYU also receives "plenty" of requests from schools wishing to contact BYU students on missions, but did not provide a number.

Why the hurry? Several student-athletes who decided to transfer while they were on their missions told me they can't afford to wait until they get home to find a landing spot because scholarships are often doled out six months before seasons begin, which is the case with football and its early February signing period.

"If you think you can call a coach in July and play for him [on scholarship] in August, you are nuts," said one.

Should image-conscious BYU wait until a missionary is home before it contacts a school asking for permission to talk to the student-athlete RM? That's probably a good topic for another day.

Obviously, the fact that Chow, Hawaii's new head coach, is involved adds an extra layer of intrigue to the ordeal because Chow was BYU's longtime assistant coach and offensive coordinator under LaVell Edwards and was most recently the OC at BYU's biggest rival, Utah. John Wadsworth said that once Chow got the job, the family appealed again to Hawaii to overturn the original denial from then-coach Greg McMackin and Donovan because they figured Chow would have a greater understanding of Michael Wadsworth's predicament and wishes. Instead, they got the opposite.

Our source said Chow did not deny the appeal because he still has an axe to grind with BYU. In fact, the source said Chow harbors no ill feelings about the way things went down in Provo just before Edwards retired (he was apparently told he wouldn't be Edwards' successor).

Rather, Chow believes he owes it to other programs who have lost a returned missionary to BYU, such as Utah State, to uphold McMackin's decision. "He's doing this for Gary [Andersen, Utah State's head coach] more than himself," the source said, noting that it is important to remember that McMackin and Donovan twice rejected the request before Chow was even on board.

Of course, BYU fans will counter that they have lost their own returned missionary players to other programs in the past as well, including highly touted quarterback Ben Olson, who was at BYU as a freshman before a church mission to Canada. He transferred to UCLA.

John Wadsworth said Chow also referenced the "Riley Nelson Rule" when he spoke to the new Hawaii coach a few weeks ago. As mentioned before, that's what some call the rule instituted by the NCAA after Nelson transferred from Utah State to BYU while on his mission to Spain. Nelson has said several times that BYU did not initiate the contact and it was his decision to transfer, but the name has stuck.

Meanwhile, Wadsworth remains adamant that BYU coaches did not initiate the contact with his son and told The Tribune that he wasn't even sure if BYU coaches were familiar with the situation "unless they have read about it in the paper."

Last July's letter obviously answers that question.

Gwilliam, BYU's compliance director, shed a little more light on that rule last Friday, while also reiterating that all BYU coaches are familiar with the rule and know that they cannot initiate contact with another school's student-athlete/missionary.

Speaking generally and not regarding a specific student-athlete, Gwilliam said before the rule referenced by Funkhouser (NCAA Bylaw 13.1.1.3) was in place, an athlete on a mission or in military service could transfer after 12 months out with no penalty.

"When the [new rule] went in, they said military service is still OK [to transfer] after a year. But if a kid on a mission transfers, the normal transfer rules apply, and there is no more mission exception," he said. "So then it reverts back to the normal transfer rules at that point."

He said all good compliance officers will look for exceptions within the rules to help student-athletes become immediately eligible for financial grant-in-aid.

"There are a lot of things in play," he said. "If you don't have permission to contact, the kid cannot receive [a scholarship] in their first year. And then obviously you can't encourage the transfer, you can't help with admissions, and that kind of stuff."

Ironically (assuming BYU does want Wadsworth), Hawaii is actually doing the Cougars a favor because the coaching staff can use the scholarship on someone else this season, yet still have Wadsworth available to play. We're also assuming that, since his father is co-founder and president of Tahitian Noni, the family can afford BYU tuition.

So that's it — the other side of the Wadsworth Affair. If you have read this far, give yourself a helmet sticker.