Gordon Monson: Root for a Cougar great who once ran afoul of the Honor Code and now intends to lead BYU football

(Photo courtesy of Jaren Wilkey | BYU Athletics) New BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga puts his players through their paces at a recent BYU football spring practice.

This is a happy story of inspiration when, straight In the teeth of the coronavirus era, all of us could use a few more of them.

It caroms from the brilliant and record-breaking to the dull and disheartening to the positive and promising, updating most recently with what BYU’s running game did to Navy on Monday night. It shredded the Midshipmen, gaining 301 yards, benefiting from a concrete slab of an offensive line and backs agile enough not only to take advantage of the openings created, but also skilled enough to catch and scamper with the spirals launched at them.

The mentor behind that skill and scampering used to do the same himself.

Harvey Unga is the running backs coach at BYU, as announced in March, when he was elevated to that position by head coach Kalani Sitake. The moment Unga found out the job was his, he did what most coaching candidates do not do: He cried. He blubbered like a baby. And he admitted that he blubbered like a baby.

It’s a promotion — Unga has worked at the school as a grad assistant for a handful of years — fully embraced by the man who once was the program’s all-time leading rusher despite the fact that he was disallowed — technically, he withdrew under pressure — from participating during his senior season in 2010 after running afoul of BYU’s Honor Code. His 3,455 yards were left to stand alone.

As was Unga.

Instead, he headed to the NFL, taken in the league’s supplemental draft by the Chicago Bears, which started a five-year pro journey through Carolina and Jacksonville that eventually spun him back to BYU, initially as that grad assistant, and now a full-time coach.

In previous years, Unga knew his place, as something between a student, a consultant and a go-fer. He says he mostly kept his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open, observing what other coaches said and did. Now, it’s different.

“It’s my time now,” he says. “I can be that loud and vocal coach these guys need.”

These guys are a group of promising backs. Sophomore Tyler Allgeier ran for 132 yards and two touchdowns against Navy, and junior Lopini Katoa got 80 on the ground and 32 through the air, including three scores. Neither has achieved anything within shouting distance of what Unga did when he amplified a key role by gaining 1,000-plus yards for three consecutive seasons, stacking up 1,087 receiving yards, 45 touchdowns and a total of 4,540 all-purpose yards.

BYU running back Tyler Allgeier, right, dives for a touchdown as Navy cornerback Cameron Kinley (3) looks on during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Tommy Gilligan)

Imagine what those totals would be if only …

If only.

If there ever was bitterness on Unga’s part for his — let’s say it the way it is — getting the heave-ho from BYU just as he was crescendoing toward a spectacular final chapter, approaching a season that might have seen him barrel toward the 5,000-rushing-yard mark, it is gone now.

What remains is passion.

He is pleased to help others find their own paths, enhancing Sitake’s philosophy of “teaching these boys as far as football goes, but also how to succeed in life, away from football.”

Those others include Allgeier, Katoa, Jackson McChesney, and Sione Finau.

“Every one of these guys,” Unga says, “can do it all. Each has the ability to be well-rounded.”

He adds: “I love these guys. … I’ve challenged them all to be that all-around back.”

And players inside the program say they love him, too.

Unga plans on achieving more than just leading BYU’s collection of RBs, he’s aiming at some time in the future to take Sitake’s place at the head of the Cougar football table. He even told Sitake that he’s “coming for his seat.”

That may not be the best way to get hired by the target, but in this particular case, it worked.

FILE - In this Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 file photo, BYU running back Lopini Katoa runs for a touchdown as Navy cornerback Michael McMorris (5) and defensive back Cameron Kinley (3) chases during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Annapolis, Md. (AP Photo/Tommy Gilligan, File)

It’s bold, remarkable ambition, since Unga hadn’t shown a whole lot in his less-than-prominent roles as a minor assistant. If BYU keeps running the ball the way it did on Monday, though, that could change. It would be worth rooting for BYU one day to hire an individual to lead its program who once struggled in his attempts to follow the Honor Code, seen as somehow unsuitable for and unworthy of donning BYU’s uniform.

Root for the man, then. Sweet that would be.

Either way, Unga says his days playing in the NFL, mixed with his short years coaching at BYU, qualify him as a full-timer handling the responsibilities that are now his.

That combo-pack of experience taught him “the nuances” of coaching and powered him through its “learning curves.”

“I’ve soaked it all in,” he says.

Unga is sure his background — and, ironically enough, his difficulties in staying compliant and eligible — help him as a coach, a counselor, a father/brother figure for the players already in the program, but also a frontline recruiter, trying to lure in talented running backs who may be uncertain about BYU’s environment.

“BYU is a unique place,” he says. “But having been there … the academic side, the Honor Code side, the football side, I’ve dealt with the whole spectrum. … I can relate to anyone.”


When • September 19, 1:30 p.m. MDT

TV • Ch. 2

He was a Polynesian kid from a modest background who grew up, as he says it, on and around the East bench of Provo, looking to find his place in high school where he didn’t always feel there was one for him, ever-searching to fit in. His junior and prep football coaches, and coaches in other sports, as well, had a major impact on and for productivity and positivity in his life.

“I was the black sheep of the family growing up,” he says. “I wasn’t the picture-perfect kid. I was a thick-headed kid who learned things the hard way. Having gone from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows helps me relate to some kids. … I’ve had my ups and downs.”

Those coaches lifted him to blaze his trail for the better.

Later, at BYU, Lance Reynolds, Unga’s position coach, asked him what he wanted to do with his life. He said: “I want to do what you do.”

Unga says he can help athletes, some of whom also fall considerably short of being picture-perfect, who not only see in their reflection a countenance that looks a lot like Harvey Unga’s, but those whose early attitudes mirror his.

Regarding the tapestry he wove at BYU — part legend, part rebel — and the successful existence to which it led, the tone and tenor of Unga’s response is answer enough.

“I don’t know if I’m a legend, but I’m more than grateful,” he says. “It’s been a dream of mine to be here, to be at this university and to coach the position I played. … It’s rewarding, it’s fulfilling, it’s something I love. I’m ecstatic.”

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.