SAN DIEGO – It’s only fitting that in a noted Navy town, a Navy guy would show up for Monday’s Holiday Bowl. Sione Po'uha, Utah’s new defensive tackles coach, will be on the sideline. He spent the 2018 regular season as an assistant coach for the Midshipmen, before being hired by the Utes early this month. Now, he’s at a more talented, less restricted program. That’s not a bad place to land.
But he may want to avoid saluting anyone.
That could be considered a taunt, except at a service academy.
Although returning to Salt Lake is a dream for Po'uha – an East High graduate -- that doesn’t mean he didn’t cherish his time at Annapolis. Being close to Naval Base San Diego for a bowl game is just a bonus.
Po'uha’s reunion with the Utes was nicely timed. He was hired a few days after coaching in the annual Army-Navy game. For casual football fans, here’s the rundown on that rivalry: it’s like Utah-BYU, minus the unseemly fan behavior. Neither religion nor NFL aspirations is a component.
It’s about love of competition, but more about love of country.
“It’s a unique experience, super awesome,” Po'uha said. “Phenomenal. I feel very fortunate to be one of the few able to coach there. I came out of there assured that the people who protect us are some really tough guys. But not just tough guys; guys of character, guys who are leaders.”
Missing an assignment at a regular college might cost a team a touchdown or even a win. But missing assignments in the Navy could cost lives. That’s why discipline is paramount. Po'uha said at the Annapolis campus, each time the American flag is raised or lowered, everything stops.
“Cars, or if you’ve got a tractor, you turn it off. Everything turns off, even in the middle of practice,” he said. “Once the flag goes down in practice, they take off their helmets and salute.”
Po'uha is a confirmed Utah man. He was an all-conference defensive lineman for the 2004 Fiesta Bowl-winning team. That was followed by a 106-game career with the New York Jets. From 2001-04, he played in four Utah-BYU games, with the Utes winning three. He considers it a first-rate rivalry, but says what sets the service academies apart is that their rivalry game is “super rich in tradition, super rich in patriotism.”
Although he calls Army-Navy a “grueling” game, “the seniors on both sides know they’re going to be teammates in a couple of months … they’re going to be locked arm-in-arm, serving the country.”
Virtually none will make football their next step.
“For the majority of players, they know what’s coming next. It’s not an NFL draft; it’s not anything like that,” Po'uha said. “These young men know they’re going out and serving the country. It’s not in a hotel, not in a luxury condominium. For them, it might be in a bunker. Some of them might be in a foxhole, some in a submarine. Those quarters are tight. So that game has a different dimension — a super-deep dimension.
“To say that I coached up there would be too lightly said. It was an honor to serve those men up there at the Academy.”
BYU’s coaches have said their athletes have a number of priorities that go along with football. That drew considerable heat during the Bronco Mendenhall era. But football at Navy has similarities.
“What I learned at Navy is that it’s not a competition of priorities. Football is an element of life, right?” Po'uha said. “The life lessons are taught in the laboratory of football. That’s how I viewed it. Sometimes we can get confused. I’ve done it myself. I can get super obsessive about football; it seems like it’s the No.1 priority. But you have to step back and say this is an element and let’s give it the full attention it deserves, and (know) how it accompanies the other elements of your life — being a father, being a great citizen.”
For that speech alone, he should be saluted.