LOGAN — The blown-up case of a recently grown-up athlete heralded the arrival of football season, a day before Utah State held its annual media preview Thursday.
Blowing things up is what social media does.
But if there is anything the complicated story of Joe Tukuafu proves, it’s that everyone has choices. You make them and live with them.
BYU and Utah State can sort it out when the teams play Sept. 29 in Logan.
The midsummer calm was interrupted when a months-old story resurfaced. Tukuafu, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound tight end who committed to play at Utah State before serving an LDS Church mission, returned last fall, only to enroll at BYU in January.
Naturally, accusations flew. Here we go again. The LDS athletic mother ship is up to its old tricks. At least that’s how Aggie fans see it. Was he recruited while on his mission? Not likely. BYU has never been on NCAA probation. It wouldn’t have started here. Besides, there are plenty of non-official people, such as fellow missionaries or other LDS members, to sell the product.
So Tukuafu returned home and decided BYU was a better fit. He was hoping to play immediately.
Sure enough, controversy ensued. The move didn’t sit well with USU and its fan base. Does it ever? (See Nelson, Riley in the dictionary.) Missionaries and transfers are a sensitive subject. It’s been simmering since before BYU made off with the Aggies’ uniform color, long ago.
That’s a story for another day.
Still, players through the years have transferred in both directions.
This is where the narrative gets murky. Tukuafu wants Aggie coach Matt Wells to sign a release, allowing him to transfer without the mandatory redshirt year, per National Letter of Intent (NLI) rules. Wells hasn’t done so, and likely never will.
“That’s an institutional policy,” Wells said Thursday, adding that “our institutional policy upholds the National Letter of Intent policy.”
A tweet posted Tuesday under the name Melini Tukuafu, referencing “my son, Joe Tukuafu” described a player who had offers from numerous schools, both before and after his mission.
“Since his decision, he has been trying to get cleared from CoachMattWells to play at BYU,” it said.
It continued, “Our concern with this matter is that Coach Wells is keeping Joe from showcasing his talents for not only his best interest, also the institution. Is it fair to bury another’s talents because of pride?”
The Tukuafu family, which Wells describes as “an outstanding family, awesome people that mean to do everything right,” argues that Wells is choosing the institution over the athlete’s best interest. But is it fair to commit to a university, leading it to recruit around him, and then reverse field?
Wells said due to the NLI, he didn’t recruit any tight ends in the last cycle.
Whichever view one favors, fact is Tukuafu doesn’t have to play at Utah State and the Aggies don’t have to gift-wrap his transfer.
Fairness is in the eye of the beholder.
“We are here to support our son and the decision he has made,” the posting closed.
Speculation has arisen that Tukuafu signed a second commitment letter to USU, after returning from his mission, but Wells says he didn’t. The Twitter statement from the family agreed. A player can be recruited after a year has passed since he committed, but it is four years before he can transfer without penalty.
Tukuafu will be criticized for lacking loyalty to his commitment, but that charge arises with virtually every transfer. Young men change their minds. Others say Wells is being punitive.
Wells says “there were no extenuating circumstances” in Tukuafu’s case.
Institutional policy aside, a coach can hardly be blamed for sending a message that it’s wrong for a player — especially one with Tukuafu’s potential — to de-commit. At the same time, Wells calls Tukuafu “a tremendous young man.”
There are only a few certainties in this saga. First, Tukuafu has the right to change his mind. But Wells doesn’t have to make it easy. That should have been clear to all parties from the start. Wells says his staff stayed in contact with Tukuafu from the time he returned from his mission.
Coaching staffs live with the possibility they will lose players they tirelessly worked to attract, and players shouldn’t plan on a transfer being rubber-stamped.
Wells says he has moved on; Tukuafu should do the same.
It has been said that in virtually all business deals that occur, “both parties go away a little bit ticked.” USU and Wells aren’t happy about the transfer. BYU and Tukuafu aren’t happy about the one-year delay. They’ll all get over it. Deep down both schools know this, even if their fan bases don’t: Nobody gets in a dogfight without sustaining some nicks.