PULLMAN – Little did Washington State football fans realize that in the bleakness of a losing finish in the New Mexico Bowl last December, a shaft of sunlight had bathed the program, even if hardly anybody knew it.
The night before the game, Joe Salave’a stood before his defensive line position group and said simply, “I’m staying.”
He was staying. He wasn’t going to accept Steve Sarkisian’s offer to join the new staff at USC. It was another significant building block in the transition of WSU football, right there with the bowl game and the new skyboxes and the football ops building, a guy with the guts to turn down USC to stick with a program that in a recent four-year period went 9-40.
His impact hasn’t been lost on the Cougars, who have jumped Salave’a’s annual salary to $275,000, up $98,500 from last year, which means he’s second among WSU assistants only to defensive coordinator Mike Breske’s $376,500.
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Of course, there were family considerations and career considerations. But without question, Salave’a was also taken back to the visits he’d had 5,000 miles away in his native American Samoa, when he’d looked into the eyes of mothers and dads and uncles and aunts and told them WSU was the best place for that young man.
“It’s tough to say these kids don’t come into mind when I’m given an opportunity elsewhere,” Salave’a confessed here recently.
A Polynesian connection
Ah, the kids. Since Mike Leach named Salave’a to his original staff, knowing he needed to re-establish a connection with the Polynesian culture that had grown dormant with the previous regime, the kids have been drawn to Salave’a — hefty prospects from American Samoa and Hawaii.
In particular, the WSU defensive line and its backups are dotted with islanders, who daily hear the gospel of their imposing mentor, preaching that they have more to give. They just don’t know it.
“We gotta bring the energy all the time,” says Daniel Ekuale, an emerging redshirt freshman from American Samoa. “We gotta bring the juice.”
With Salave’a, you take a play off at your peril. Everybody has sluggish days, at least sluggish moments, but those have no place in the playbook of “Coach Joe,” as his charges call him.
Salave’a is mammoth — he confesses to pushing 400 pounds until dropping some weight not long ago — and he looks like he could still snort and stem with the best of his players.
“Every time we come on the field, he always turns us up,” says Robert Barber, a sophomore nose tackle from Pago Pago.
It’s the only way he knows. He played defensive tackle for Dick Tomey at Arizona in the late ‘90s, a coach with a knack for finding guys who would die for his program. There, Salave’a was All-Pac-10 in 1997, and after entering as a partial qualifier and not being eligible to play his freshman year, he regained a season of eligibility by graduating in four years.
Salave’a is beloved in Tucson. Former assistant coach Duane Akina says: “He’s still one of the all-time great Wildcats. There’s volumes of tape of him making tackles 30 yards down the field.”
Tomey remembers him similarly.
“Everybody says they play hard, but they really don’t,” says Tomey, now retired in Hawaii. “There are a few guys that just spill their guts all the time, in every way. He was one of those guys. Such pride he has about the game, about being Polynesian, about being Samoan — he has all of that.”
Because of the uncertainty about his final year of eligibility, Salave’a was invited both to the Hula Bowl and the East-West Shrine games twice. Tomey told him to be careful not to hire an agent, so he could preserve his last year.
“Most of those guys went ahead and did that anyway,” Tomey says. “He did not.”
Family comes first
Salave’a had a nine-year NFL career — Tennessee, Baltimore, San Diego and Washington — and then joined Tomey at San Jose State. It was in a two-year stint at Arizona that he recruited offensive lineman Lene Maiava, which would eventually serve to turn on the spigot for WSU in the islands.
Destiny Vaeao, the Cougars’ 6-4, 295-pound defensive end, was a teammate of Maiava, and recruiting him led Salave’a to Barber, a 6-3, 305-pound nose tackle.
“Destiny ended up being a highly-recruited kid,” says Salave’a. “Nick Saban flew him out to Alabama, and most of the Pac-12 was gunning for him.”
But Nick Saban doesn’t matter so much in the South Seas. What does is trust and belief and relationships.
“Those families care less if it’s a mega-program,” Salave’a says. “All they care is whether my kid’s going to graduate or not.”
And the key word is family.
“Most of the time, these kids aren’t deciding on schools they want,” says Salave’a. “The family, or the mom and dad, have to be on board. They want to make sure their kids are going to be looked at and challenged.”
The fathers of both Vaeao and Barber had died, and Salave’a recalls their mothers being passionate about graduating. That’s how Vaeao remembers it as well.
“The first thing he talked about was school,” Vaeao says. “He said we gotta get our education first.’’
Indeed, Salave’a hints that the deep cultural bond he feels must outweigh even football’s urgencies.
“Some of these kids here, they mean a lot to me,” he says. “As I made known to coach Leach, I’m not going to bring everybody, just the kids who fit academically, the character and what we stand for.”
And if it seems incongruous to think of islanders braving 15-degree temperatures and snowfall in a Pullman winter, Salave’a sets a tone for his players.
“He doesn’t let weather affect anything he does,” says linebacker Jeremiah Allison. “It’ll be 20 degrees outside, and he’ll be in shorts and a tank top. So it’s, ‘If Coach Joe can do it, I can do it, too.’ ”
When asked about adjusting to Pullman, Vaeao doesn’t even bring up the subject of weather.
“It’s just like back home,” he says. “Small community, everybody knows each other.”
It was for reasons like Toni Pole, a starting defensive lineman with Tongan heritage who began with the Wulff regime, that WSU fought to keep Salave’a in the offseason.
“I can’t say enough about what he’s done for me as a player,” Pole says. “He’s kind of opened my eyes as to how good I can actually be.”
Now, Salave’a is saying how he gets to the South Seas maybe a couple of times a year, and sometimes, when he visits a recruit, there will be two, three, four clans there.
“If you know a family there,” he says, “you’ll be hosted like you’re the ambassador of a country.
“It’s not one of those bus-stop kind of deals.”
Nor, apparently, is Joe Salave’a at Washington State.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org