College football • Once players, a generation of Polynesians takes root on coaching staffs.
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While some children were growing up with Mario and Tetris, in Hawaii, kids would stay outside until twilight running around with the pigskin. Kalani Sitake remembers not wanting to go home. Football was always calling to him.
After his high school years in St. Louis and his college career in Provo, Sitake dreams lingered on the NFL. A back injury all but ruled that possibility out.
He hadn't really considered what his career would be beyond football.
"For me, I wanted to be in the NFL that's what I wanted to do," he said. "I wasn't really able to close that chapter. I wanted to be a player so bad, coaching was the next best thing."
From his first job at Eastern Arizona without much grounding in the defensive backs he was hired to coach, Sitake has come a long way. He's been firmly entrenched at Utah, where he's helped coach the defense into one of the nation's most respected.
His story is like many other coaches, but noteworthy in a distinct trend: As more Polynesians flock to Division I colleges to play football, more Polynesians are rising on college coaching staffs.
A generation ago, Norm Chow was one of the few and most prominent. Today, there's a vibrant community of Polynesian football coaches who support each other and love to talk ball.
"A lot of those guys are guys we played with or played against, so we know each other," Sitake said. "The islands are only so big, so we can find connections and interact a lot."
It's a numbers game, Sitake says. It's only natural that guys with backgrounds in football are going to be drawn to coaching. They recruit Polynesian players, sure, but their methods of recruiting and strengths don't just appeal to prospects who share their culture.
"I think many of us being who we are, we bring kind of an old-school approach," Utah State defensive line coach Frank Maile said. "We have a lot of importance on family in our culture, and no matter who we're trying to bring in to our program, that's who we are. It's not a race thing, it's something that a lot of families want."
As Polynesian assistants take root at many schools at the Division I level, it seems like a matter of time before there are more in head coaching roles. For now, there are two: Hawaii's Chow and Navy's Ken Niumatalolo.
Niumatalolo, who is entering his sixth season leading the Midshipmen, says his advice to young ambitious coaches is to simply prove they belong where they're at.
"I've talked to a lot of guys, and I just say do your job," he said. "Work hard at your positions and your craft. Don't worry about climbing the ladder."
Sitake, who several in the community believe could be the next member of that club, agrees with Niumatalolo. Until that time comes, he'll be busy pouring his passion into Utah's defense.
"I've always been taught you focus on the task at hand," he says. "Right now, all I can focus on is being the best D coordinator I can be."