PROVO — During his freshman season playing running back for BYU, Harvey Unga told then-running backs coach Lance Reynolds that he would like to go into coaching when his playing days were over.

“This is what I want to do. This is what I love,” Unga told Reynolds in 2006 after signing with BYU out of nearby Timpview High. “From then on, it was something I felt passionate about, something that I really wanted to do.”

Unga landed what he called his “dream job” on Thursday, as BYU head coach Kalani Sitake announced the Provo native and second-leading rusher in school history will replace AJ Steward, who left for Arizona last month.

Unga, who was picked by the Chicago Bears in the 2010 NFL supplemental draft and spent time with the Bears for parts of four seasons, has been a graduate assistant at BYU the past four seasons. He was a student assistant the year prior to that in Bronco Mendenhall’s last season in Provo.

Asked in a teleconference Thursday afternoon what qualities he will bring to the position, Unga said he doesn’t like to talk about himself much but believes his strengths are his relatability with his players, his knowledge gained from working under outstanding coaches such as Reynolds, Mendenhall, Sitake and Steward, and his love for the game and BYU.

“I don’t think I would be half the coach I am now if I had not had the opportunity to be a grad assistant and go through a lot of learning curves and just figuring out the little nuances of coaching,” he said.

The trust and relationships that Unga has with his players was evident before the BYU football team’s remaining spring practices were canceled last week when Cougar running backs Lopini Katoa and Tyler Allgeier went out of their way to lobby for him to be their next running backs coach.

“We would love to see him get the job,” Katoa said last week, “because we all have that strong relationship with him, and that trust is already there. We know he can help us a lot, so we would love nothing more than for Harvey to be our coach.”

Added Allgeier: “We have already really appreciated Harvey and all he’s done for us.”

“We would love to see him get the job, because we all have that strong relationship with him, and that trust is already there. We know he can help us a lot, so we would love nothing more than for Harvey (Unga) to be our coach.” — BYU running back Lopini Katoa

Unga earned a degree in recreation management from BYU in 2012 and will finish his master’s in public administration this year at BYU’s Marriott School of Business. His wife, Keilani, played basketball for BYU and is an assistant coach at Utah Valley University.

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“She has always been my number one fan, from my playing days until now,” Unga said. “She’s been my rock and she was ecstatic. This whole time, she was pumped. When we got the news, we both kinda started crying. ... She was so selfless about the whole process.”

In a school news release, Unga also thanked BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, deputy athletic director Brian Santiago, Sitake and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes “for their trust in allowing me to take on this role. It is humbling.”

Unga has coached the running backs, wide receivers and offensive line as a graduate assistant.

“Above all, I am thankful to my Heavenly Father and (want to) especially thank my wife and family for their love and support that make it all possible,” he said. “The boys on the team have all been supportive of me, and I can’t wait to help them achieve their goals.”

Only Jamaal Williams (3,901 yards) has rushed for more yards in a BYU uniform than Unga, who finished with 3,455 yards, 36 rushing touchdowns, 1,085 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns in a brilliant three-year career. 

“Harvey is a great young coach who was an elite player for BYU and is an extremely humble person,” Sitake said in the release. “He knows the game, relates well to the players, and has done an outstanding job the past four years on our staff. We are excited to have him step into this role, and know he will excel in helping the young men in our program learn, grow and develop.”

Williams surpassed Unga’s school rushing record in Unga’s first year as a GA, 2016. The father of four also helped develop All-American offensive lineman Tejan Koroma.

BYU is scheduled to open the 2020 season on Sept. 3 at rival Utah.

Unga saved some of his best performances for the Utes, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of BYU’s three matchups with Utah. He totaled 61 carries, 373 rushing yards and four TDs vs. Utah.

Along with playing for the Bears, Unga signed with the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014 before concluding his NFL career. Katoa said the fact that Unga knows what it takes to get to the NFL resonates in the meeting room.

“Building a relationship with the players over the years, that’s been a huge thing for me,” Unga acknowledged. “I feel like these players trust me and they know how I coach. They understand how I teach. They seem to pick it up rather quickly when I teach them things.”