PROVO — On Signing Day last February, first-year BYU football coach Kalani Sitake opened up about his general recruiting philosophy.
“We’re going to focus on the LDS athlete first, regardless of where they’re at. We’re trying to find them and recruit them and do our best to convince them that BYU’s the place for them to be,” Sitake said. “We’re going to search the whole world, to be honest with you. We’re calling out all LDS faithful. If you see a big guy that can move pretty good then call us. I don’t care what sport they play. If they can kick a ball through the uprights, I don’t care what it is. If you're a good athlete and good person and want to be in this BYU football family, we want you. The scope of recruiting is going to cover the whole world. I don’t know if we’ll be able to send every coach to different parts of the Earth. But I’m willing to do that and we have the resources to make it happen.”
A worldwide approach to recruiting is not anything new in Provo.
At about the time that the Cougar football program was emerging on the national scene more than 35 years ago, then-athletic director Glen Tuckett explained to Sports Illustrated the athletic department’s potential as an LDS school.
“Purely for athletic reasons now: if we wanted to enroll every good Mormon athlete in the world plus every good, big athlete we convert to our church — just stash them here on our campus, put them on this team or that … think of it. All the King’s horses, as they say, couldn’t stop BYU,” Tuckett told the magazine in 1980.
The LDS Church’s total membership then was 4.6 million. As of the end of 2015, the LDS Church’s membership was 15.6 million. For BYU's athletic department, the church’s growth means many more potential prospects for its athletic teams.
While Sitake wants to tap into that vast pool of recruits, he adds that it’s important not to expect top LDS athletes to sign with BYU due to religious affiliation alone.
“They shouldn’t feel obligated just because they’re LDS to come to BYU. We should do our job as recruiters and coaches to make them feel wanted and welcomed at our school,” Sitake said. “There’s a bunch of really good LDS athletes out there. We’re not going to sign them all. We can only have a certain amount. I’m excited that there’s a bunch of guys that are out there representing the church the right way. Hopefully, we can convince a good number of them to be here at BYU."
The Cougar coaching staff prior to Sitake’s arrival also spent considerable time scouring the world for recruits.
For the past several years, Cougar coaches, like defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi and former offensive coordinator Brandon Doman, traveled to the South Pacific in search of prospects. In the summer of 2012, Doman spent some time in American Samoa.
On Signing Day in 2015, BYU attracted national attention for signing 6-foot-7, 410-pound Motekiai (“Mo”) Langi from Tonga. Kaufusi had watched Langi played a pickup game of basketball during a trip to Tonga. Kaufusi had also traveled to Samoa, Fiji and New Zealand on that recruiting sojourn.
Langi's signing went viral on social media due to his enormous size and the fact he’s never played football before. Langi is currently serving a mission in Arizona and is set to join the program for the 2017 season.
Mendenhall offered Langi a scholarship just 15 minutes after meeting him just a couple of weeks earlier in Provo — just days before Langi entered the Missionary Training Center.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Mendenhall said at the time. “They were all shocked I offered him a scholarship. I think everybody was.”
BYU’s punter, Jonny Linehan, hails from New Zealand, though he originally arrived in Provo to play rugby.
Of course the most famous story of an LDS foreign player succeeding with the BYU football program is Ezekiel Ansah, who came to BYU as a walk-on from Accra, Ghana, having never played football. He ended up being a first-round pick, No. 5 overall, of the Detroit Lions in the 2013 NFL draft. He’s now one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL.
Meanwhile, BYU has had a longstanding tradition of having a bevy of Polynesian players in its football program, and that is expected to become an even stronger push under Sitake, who is the first Tongan head coach at the FBS level. Plus, there are other Polynesians on his staff.
“We have a strong influence of Polynesian student-athletes on our football team, and have for a long time,” said athletic director Tom Holmoe. “And I think (having Sitake as head coach) will help in some regard. The thing that’s important is that part of it is the staff, but part is individual coaches and individual student-athletes. It only takes one student-athlete to hit one coach and match up and connect with them. Recruiting is about connections. Ultimately, we want to connect them to the school, and that’s what we’ve been able to do for so long. We have a great connection because of the culture. But there’s a lot of choices for potential student-athletes, and we’ve got to work. We’ve got to work hard. We’ve got to make more connections and tie more individuals into the things that are attractive to them here, rather than someone else. And we can do that. We’ve got a great place to sell. BYU sells itself. I know that people think there are distractions and weaknesses, but to me, it sells itself.”