When Harvey Unga first joined the BYU football team in 2006, he didn’t come in with any huge expectations. He knew he wanted to try to break into the NFL, but understood the reality that only a very small percentage of college players actually make that dream a reality.
But being at BYU did instantly inspire another, more attainable, dream: to become a coach.
Unga has now been able to make both dreams come true.
After a spectacular collegiate career, Unga went on to play in the NFL for a few years. Then he came back to Provo, and joined the Cougar staff as a graduate assistant, working with the offense over the last four years, focusing on the running backs the last two seasons.
Last week, Unga was hired as BYU’s running back coach, replacing AJ Steward who left in February for the same position at Arizona. Being able to not only coach, but coach at BYU quickly became a dream of Unga’s.
He shared his passion, which was materialized over his freshman season, with then-running backs coach Lance Reynolds.
“From that moment on, as the years went by, and really getting to know Coach Reynolds and just really reflecting on a bunch of my former coaches, it was kind of then, I was like alright this is what I want to do,” Unga said. “This is what I love. And from then on, it was what I felt passionate about, something that I really wanted to do.”
Reynolds, one of BYU's longest tenured coaches, got his coaching career started as a graduate assistant with the Cougars as well (albeit in 1979-80). The Salt Lake City native then went on to be the assistant head coach at Snow College and Ricks College before coming back to BYU in 1983 to take over the Cougars' junior varsity program.
In 1985, Reynolds became BYU's running back coach and 15 years later moved up to an assistant head coach, where he remained through the rest of his career until 2012.
Luckily for Unga, who will complete his master's of public administration this year at the BYU Marriott School of Business and has been a graduate assistant on the Cougars' staff the last four years, he didn't have to leave for another program to get his first non-GA gig.
So far, even though the ongoing coronavirus forced football to cancel the remainder of its spring practices, Unga said the transition has been smooth.
Of course, Unga still expects there to be some learning curves as he takes on his new role, but he believes the relationships he was able to build with the players over the last four years was part of what made him stand out as a candidate for the job.
“I feel like these guys trust me,” Unga said. “They know how I coach, they understand how I teach, they seem to pick it up rather quickly when I teach them things.”
While Unga is on the younger side of the coaching scale and doesn’t have many years of experience from the sideline, he does have many years of playing experience — especially at running back.
Unga is the only BYU player in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. The Timpview product finished his collegiate career as the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher in 2009 with 3,455 rushing yards – a record that was later broken by Jamaal Williams in 2016.
After a stellar career at BYU, Unga was selected by the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFL Supplemental Draft, where he played for the Bears for parts of the 2010-13 seasons. He also signed with the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014 before concluding his NFL career.
“I've soaked everything in from my playing days as a coach, from all the great coaches that I've been around and all the other coaches,” Unga said. “… For me, playing experience has helped me out a ton. Learning from all the different coaches, different offenses and then coaching a position that I've played at in every level, that definitely helps me out a ton. And not to say players make the best coaches, but it does help quite a bit, especially if you coach the position you've played in that you feel you've mastered.”
But Unga will need to up his leadership a bit now that he is the Cougar's running back coach.
Coming from a Polynesian family, Unga was taught to respect the hierarchy and respect his elders and those in authoritative positions. Because of that, Unga said, he sometimes didn't speak up as much as a graduate assistant and was respectful of Steward's job. Although some coaches noticed that Unga wouldn't talk as much or wouldn't be as loud as he needed to be, Steward would go to bat for Unga and let coaches know when an idea came from his graduate assistant.
“But for now, I feel like it's my time,” Unga said. “Now, I can say whatever I want and just be that loud, vocal coach that some of these guys need.”
Unga hopes to continue to draw from his experience to help his student athletes as much as possible and be able to recruit players that he sees could fit in at BYU even if they don't believe so.
As a kid, Unga grew up on Provo's east bench, but didn't feel like he belonged. The majority of families in that area were a lot more privileged than his own. So, he's able to relate to both the kids from less-privileged families and those that come from families like the ones he grew up alongside.
“I think, having come from that kind of background, I feel like I can relate to anyone in my opinion,” Unga said. “I've had my doubts with not having money growing up, and everything like that. And, like I said, I lived on the east bench of Provo, where I was around kids with a lot of money and kind of understand that whole dynamic and can relate to those guys. And then obviously being a minority, there's that aspect of it, too. Growing up in Provo, Utah, there's not a lot of diversity. There's a lot of different things that I think helped me prepare for the whole recruiting process.”
Unga also had to adjust from living in a smaller town where everyone knows everyone to moving to Chicago and living there for five years before moving to Jacksonville, Fla.
Experiencing different cities has allowed Unga to also be able to help those recruits coming in from out of state.
“It's definitely helped me out, relate a ton to these guys that are from out of state and that are coming here to something super foreign and super different,” Unga said.
As far as where he’d like to see his career take off, he often jokes with Kalani Sitake that he’s gunning for the head coaching gig. But that’s way down the road, obviously.
First, Unga would like to master the position coach job and do the best he can before hopefully jumping into a coordinator spot.
“Whether it’s here at BYU or somewhere else, that’s the goal and the aspiration and something I’m trying my best to do and accomplish,” Unga said. “I’ve always just kind of taken it one step at a time. From my playing days to even now as a coach, I try not to jump ahead of myself. Take it one year at a time and make the best out of that year and then the following year do the same. And then eventually, I think things will work out as they’re supposed to work out.”