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Ilaisa Tuiaki’s journey from MMA fights, food stamps and rejection letters to BYU’s defensive coordinator

Former Timpview High and SUU running back grew up dreaming of teaching English and coaching high school football, but college coaches had other plans for the Provo native

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki gives instructions during team practice and scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki gives instructions during the team’s practice and scrimmage at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016.
Jaren Wilkey, BYU

Ilaisa Tuiaki’s career journey from barely paid offensive coordinator at Kearns High to fairly compensated and highly successful defensive coordinator at BYU would make a great, almost unbelievable, meme on the internet.

You know, kind of like those old before and after pictures?

How it started: Tuiaki made “lunch money, is about it” as a professional mixed martial arts fighter with the moniker “Ogre 6” while teaching sophomore English for two years at the western Salt Lake Valley high school while making less than $30,000 per year to support his wife, Viola, and four children (at the time) and supplementing his income on nights and weekends by handling airline baggage at the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Utah Utes coach Ilaisa Tuiaki works with players in the first spring football practice in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 20, 2012.
Utah Utes coach Ilaisa Tuiaki works with players in the first spring football practice in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 20, 2012.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Professionally, after two seasons at Kearns building a fledgling program directed by no-nonsense head coach Bill Cosper and trying to handle classes of upwards of 40 students, Tuiaki interviewed to be a head coach at three different high schools and was turned down by each one. So he went to work as a graduate assistant at Utah under Gary Andersen and Kyle Whittingham, where he received less than $1,000 a month and needed food stamps, government assistance and “a lot of student loans” to get by while living in married student housing.

How it is going: Tuiaki’s salary at privately owned BYU isn’t made public, but it is probably north of $300,000 considering he was making $250,000 at Oregon State as that Pac-12 school’s linebackers coach and special teams coordinator before fellow Beavers assistant Kalani Sitake brought him to Provo in 2016.

Professionally, Tuiaki has coordinated a defense that finished in the top 25 in total defense three of his five years at BYU, including a No. 10 finish last year, allowing just 317.4 yards per game, albeit against a very weak schedule. The Cougars ranked No. 4 in scoring defense in 2020, allowing just 15.33 points per game.

He still has his critics in Provo, partly because he hasn’t been able to turn the town into “Sack Lake City” South, but Tuiaki is starting to draw some interest as a head coach — he reportedly interviewed for the top job at Montana State last winter — at the FCS level, and as a coordinator for a Power Five program.

“I am super grateful for everything that’s happened to me,” Tuiaki said at BYU’s football media day last week. “My whole life, my dream was to be a high school teacher and a high school coach. And I was living it for two years and it was tough, but we got by. I never, ever imagined I would get to the college ranks.”

Let alone this: “He’s an incredibly valuable part of our staff,” Sitake said. “We are fortunate to have him.”

Underappreciated?

Tuiaki, now 42 and with seven children ranging from ages 3-18, seemingly never receives the appreciation and adoration he deserves, if fan message boards, sports talk radio shows and social media posts are any indication.

The man isn’t the least bit concerned about that, he says.

“Hmmm, that’s a good question,” he says, pausing to find the right words. “For me, everything is about my relationship with my boss, and what he thinks. And I do feel appreciated by him.”

Spend any time around the program, and it becomes evident that Tuiaki and Sitake have a special bond, a brotherhood that extends well beyond coaching. There were some snickers and questions about Tuiaki having never coordinated before when Sitake hired him in 2016 upon replacing Bronco Mendenhall, but most of those doubts and criticisms have subsided.

“I love my boss. Absolutely love him. I love working for him and love the quality of life that I have. That’s all I can ask for,” Tuiaki told the Deseret News. “Accolades and all that stuff, I don’t care about. It doesn’t really bother me whether we get it or not. I think it is more about respecting the players and honoring them. I just enjoy working here. I enjoy working for Kalani.”

That doesn’t mean Tuiaki doesn’t aspire to be a head coach some day — at BYU or anywhere else.

“That’s one of my dreams, to be a head coach,” he said. “But you pump the brakes a little bit, because you are not out there looking. … It has to be the right time, the right opportunity, in order for you to leave something as good as this.”

Told that Tuiaki feels appreciated by his boss, Sitake jokes that his lifelong friend is probably referring to his wife, Viola. On a more serious note, Sitake agrees that Tuiaki doesn’t get enough praise, perhaps because “at BYU, offense gets most of the attention,” for better or worse.

Kalani Sitake, head coach, and Ilaisa Tuiaki, BYU defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, shake hands during BYU media day at BYU Broadcasting in Provo on Friday, June 23, 2017.
Kalani Sitake, head coach, and Ilaisa Tuiaki, BYU defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, shake hands during BYU media day at BYU Broadcasting in Provo on Friday, June 23, 2017.
Kristin Murphy, Kristin Murphy

“I can tell you I appreciate his humility,” Sitake said. “He doesn’t have an ego. It is nice to work with someone that doesn’t have an ego and is easygoing and understands everyone and is willing to work with everyone. Those are good qualities to have: empathy and humility. And that is Ilaisa Tuiaki, right there.”

Tuiaki argues that it might be more difficult to coach offense at BYU, rather than defense. He is self-deprecating and humble, but never asks for sympathy, even when injuries riddled the unit at the end of the 2019 season, contributing to upset losses to South Florida, San Diego State and Hawaii.

“I think it is hard to be good at what you do, whether you are on that side of the ball or this side of the ball,” he said. “To be consistently good for years I think is really, really hard. I have an appreciation for just good coaching, and good ball.”

Sitake said Tuiaki is a lot more cerebral than people think, using data and analytics to develop his game plans.

“In coaching a lot of people go by feel, but he’s kinda the opposite of that,” Sitake said. “He’s got a great feel for the game, but his strategies are unique. I really like it. I like the way he operates. It is different from a lot of coaches.”

‘Kind of a goofball’

Having been at BYU as long as Tuiaki, senior defensive end Uriah “Lopa” Leiataua says the best way to describe Tuiaki is “defensive mastermind.” The graduate student and law school hopeful who returned to BYU for a fifth year to complete some “unfinished business” says Tuiaki is also “a super funny guy” who is loved by every player on the team.

“People don’t give him enough credit,” Leiataua said. “A lot of our media kind of chews him out sometimes. And I feel like a lot of it is undeserved. His philosophy might be unusual to others, but everyone that has played under him understands how much he puts into the game of football, and how smart he is.”

Added linebacker Max Tooley: “Coach E. is kind of a goofball, but he’s a great coach and has a great defensive mind. It is cool that he used to be an MMA fighter, because around us he is so easygoing, but works so hard. … I like to think about how many guys have crossed his path and probably not come away in the best shape. He is built like a tank.”

Said another linebacker, Keenan Pili: “Coach Tuiaki is always cracking jokes, always smiling, always positive. He likes to have fun, for sure.”

Indeed, Tuiaki was a running back and linebacker at nearby Timpview High, having been born in Kahuku, Hawaii, and started his playing career at Snow College before moving on to Southern Utah University, where he became acquainted with Andersen and Sitake and became a two-time recipient of the Utah Coalition for the Advancement of Minorities in Higher Education scholarship.

Climbing the coaching ladder

A few months after the Kearns Cougars’ 2007 football season concluded with a 56-10 loss to Alta in the 5A state playoffs and the Hawks went on to win the state championship, Andersen and Sitake asked him to apply for an open G.A. position on Utah’s staff.

The catch was Tuiaki had to apply to graduate school and get accepted on his own. He wasn’t originally accepted, but the school had an exception for people who had been teaching for two years, “and so I got into the teaching program there at the U and it just happened to work out,” he said. “All the former players that tried, they couldn’t get into school, but I could. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and was around the right people.”

Tuiaki’s plan was to get his master’s degree so he could “get bumped up in the pay scale” when he returned to coaching at the high school level. Instead, the Utes went undefeated in 2008 and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl to finished the season ranked No. 2 in the nation, and Andersen was hired to become USU’s head coach.

He took Tuiaki with him to Logan to work with running backs and special teams, and the Ogre 6’s college coaching career was off and running.

BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki listens to the post-practice debriefing in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017.
BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki listens to the post-practice debriefing in Provo on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017.
Kelsey Brunner, Deseret News

“I am just grateful for everything,” Tuiaki said. “And I am still here. I keep waiting for them to kick me out so I would have to go back to high school coaching. But it has been good. It has been really good.”

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Tuiaki made $40,000 his first year coaching the Aggies’ running backs, and the annual salary was so overwhelming that he and his wife “were crying.”

His life changed even more on Feb. 22, 2012, when Whittingham offered him the chance to return to the U. A day later, he accepted the position, and he spent three seasons on the Hill as a full-time coach, the first working with the fullbacks, the last two working with the defensive line where he teamed with Sitake to help the Utes lead the nation in overall sacks with 55.

When Sitake became OSU’s defensive coordinator in 2015, Tuiaki joined him in Corvallis.

Shortly after the 2015 season ended, Mendenhall resigned as BYU’s coach to take the Virginia job, Sitake got the BYU job, and Tuiaki was on the move again, six kids in tow.

His seventh child, daughter Heilala, was born a few years ago in Provo.

A lion with a Lamb

Shortly after Sitake got the job, the head coach sat down with Tuiaki, new offensive coordinator Ty Detmer and Ed Lamb, who had joined the staff from Southern Utah, where he was head coach from 2008-15.

Lamb, who was eventually named assistant head coach, special teams coordinator and safeties coach, told Sitake that he wasn’t interested in having anything to do with the defense if he wasn’t the coordinator.

“I told Kalani, ‘I don’t want my name on the defense unless it is mine,’ Lamb said. “Kind of a butthole way of looking at it.’”

However, Lamb says after a couple of days working with Tuiaki, he was fine working on the defensive side of the ball.

“The way that he can collaborate, unify and communicate, that just wasn’t a concern for me anymore,” Lamb said. “Within a couple of weeks, I went from coaching tight ends and special teams to coaching safeties and special teams, because of coach E. I am really glad it has shaken out that way. That’s just an explanation of who Ilaisa is and what he is about.”

Lamb says the staff recently did some personality profiling, which revealed one of Tuiaki’s greatest strengths is that he is a unifier.

“That resonated with me right away,” Lamb said. “He’s not the typical football guy who is out there beating his chest, and (people erroneously believe) that he is not a motivator, or a strong personality. It is the exact opposite. He is so comfortable in his own skin, and so authentic that he is actually always building up the people around him. He will make a great head coach some day.”