The Hawaii Bowl may be a lower-tier postseason game, but for BYU, it’s paradise

(Eugene Tanner | AP file photo) BYU running back Austin Kafentzis (2) attempts to get by Hawaii defensive back Trayvon Henderson (39) in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, in Honolulu.

Provo • BYU locked in its postseason destination in mid-November — a berth in the Hawaii Bowl — then found out its opponent would be the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors a couple weeks ago.

It’s not a College Football Playoff berth. It’s not a New Year’s Six game. BYU is once again playing in a lower-tier bowl. But those caveats aside, it might just be the perfect postseason landing spot for the Cougars.

After all, BYU and Hawaii have a long, storied history. And it’s one Hawaii coach Nick Rolovich learned about when he was quarterback for the Warriors nearly two decades ago.

“I hear from fans about BYU almost every day,” Rolovich said. “It’s not just from playing them this year in the bowl game. I had no idea the importance of the matchup with BYU until after the [2001] game. I have to explain a little to the team, that this is a football game, and you have to stay centered by taking it one play at a time. But there is some special meaning with it being BYU.”

Although both programs first met on the field in 1930, their history is rooted in more than just wins or losses.



At Aloha Stadium, Honolulu

When • Tuesday, 6 p.m. MST


BYU served as one of the game’s pioneers in recruiting players from Tonga, Samoa, the Hawaiian Islands and all of Polynesia, brining them brought to the forefront since the 1950s. However, the recruitment of the Pacific Islands really picked up steam under legendary BYU coach LaVell Edwards.

Alema Fitisemanu, who lived less than a half hour drive from Aloha Stadium when he was a child, grew up a Hawaii fan. He would go to practices and spring games to watch the Rainbow Warriors as much as possible. There was never an interest in playing for BYU because he only ever wanted to play for Hawaii.

But when he moved to western Samoa, things changed.

“LaVell Edwards was the first Division I coach to actually get to Samoa and start recruiting right out of Samoa,” Fitisemanu said. “Dick Tomey was second, but LaVell came down there and offered me down there.”

And that offerhelped lead Fitisemanu — and the Cougars — to a national championship.

For Jack Damuni, who played for the Cougars in the 1990s and now works for the program's support staff, seeing players get the opportunity to play football on the mainland, and be successful, was really inspiring.

If anything, Damuni considers himself a prime example of BYU's recruiting process working.

When Damuni got out of high school, all he was doing was dancing at the Polynesian Culture Center. A lot of the guys that danced there were also former football players and the group would often talk about playing football at BYU, but never thought it would be in the cards for them.

But then Damuni saw Fitisemanu walking behind the stage at the culture center, greeting all these people he knew.

“It kind of motivated me to want to play for the BYU football team,” Damuni said. “That’s when my goal started — when they came to the Polynesian Culture Center. A lot of teams have come in and made an impact, especially teams in the Pac-12, but everybody knows the original Polynesian Pipeline was started by BYU.”

Continuing the tradition

Current BYU coach Kalani Sitake was recruited in the 1990s by Edwards and played for BYU between 1994-2000, with a church mission thrown in the middle. When Sitake was named the program’s head coach four years ago, he became the nation’s first FBS head football coach of Tongan descent.

His staff includes Polynesians Ilaisa Tuiaki, Fesi Sitake, Nu'u Tafisi, Fitisemanu, Damuni, Jansen Ah You, Manase Tonga, Vince Feula and Harvey Unga.

Sitake has continued the tradition of recruiting from the Pacific Islands and has three coaches keeping an ear on the ground out there.

“I don't know if it was a mandate by Kalani when he came in, but when I got here, I was pleasantly surprised that there are three coaches there, going in there on a regular basis, being a resource to the community there,” Fitisemanu said.

When it comes down to it, Fitisemanu believes the culture alone is what draws colleges to want to recruit Polynesian players.

Polynesians value family and respect respect of elders and respect of bringing up and mentoring youth, Fitisemanu said. And that fits neatly into the BYU culture.

“He doesn’t let things get silly, have guys getting crazy — he’s the one that will always look out for the weak one or the one that needs mentoring,” Fitisemanu said of Sitake. “He’s seeking those guys out because that’s what he values. … It’s something they hold dear to them. So, coaches love that about them. It’s very centered in some values, very family-oriented values.”

More than recruiting

Besides the Polynesian connection, the Cougars offer Pacific Island prospects another important link — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the BYU-Hawaii campus

When it comes to the BYU network, it's the LDS network.

Regardless of whether they actually went to BYU, or any of the school’s other campuses, if someone is an LDS Church member, they’re also, as often as not, a Cougar fan.

“They just jump on board,” Fitisemanu said. “And that will go for all the campuses — BYU-Idaho, BYU-Hawaii. They all just kind of jump on board and they support their BYU and they come out to support. There isn’t a town that we go into that we don’t have great support. And Hawaii is no different.”

Back when Damuni worked at the Polynesian Culture Center, all the students at BYU-Hawaii were BYU fans. They would gather at the campus cafeteria every Saturday morning to watch the BYU football games and support the Cougars.

Students would come from all over the world and come together, not just through the church, but in support for BYU, Damuni said. And it continues to happen.

Because of it, the former strong safety believes there should be a solid crowd at the Hawaii Bowl.

“The reason is because of the church,” Damuni said. “It’s the same thing how when we go out and play in Michigan or Cincinnati, wherever, and we have so many fans that follow us because of the church. So, because the church is very strong in Hawaii and because Laie — the North Shore — has BYU-Hawaii, all of those students are BYU fans as well. So, they’ll come out and watch the game as well. There’s a strong following.”