MADISON, Wis. — The name Ula Tolutau likely doesn’t conjure up strong feelings for Wisconsin football fans today. All anyone really knows about the newest Badgers recruit are his measurables: A 6-foot-1, 225-pound running back from Salt Lake City, Utah, who is the sixth commitment in the Class of 2014.
Years from now, however, Tolutau could be remembered for something that can’t be measured today. He could be remembered as a trendsetter, a pipeline starter who opened an entirely new world in Wisconsin recruiting. Tolutau is the first Polynesian player committed to Wisconsin under head coach Gary Andersen and the Badgers’ new coaching staff.
Given the success Andersen has had recruiting Polynesian players in previous coaching stops at Southern Utah, Utah and Utah State, it could be the start of something special at Wisconsin.
In 2011, for example, Utah State had 22 Polynesian players on its roster with Andersen in charge. The Aggies finished with their first winning season since 1997. During the 2012 season, Andersen’s last at Utah State, the Aggies had a total of 16 Polynesian players on the roster and closed the year with its first top-25 ranking since 1961.
While it is hardly likely Wisconsin will ever reach numbers that large in Polynesian recruiting, Badgers coaches believe there is a correlation between team success and the recruitment of Polynesian players.
Badgers defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a, who was raised in Hawaii and has experience recruiting Polynesian players, said the most significant benefits were their overall size and the size of their personalities.
“I think our kids bring that family atmosphere, that family environment,” Kauha’aha’a said in January when he was introduced as a Badgers assistant. “Family always comes first. That’s why a lot of schools went to recruiting Polynesian kids. They saw what was happening at Utah and BYU. It’s unbelievable the way they bring that camaraderie, that ‘I got your back’ feel to the team.
“I think that’s one of the biggest assets they contribute. Not only because they’re big physical guys. They’re 300 pounders that can run like linebackers. Obviously that helps. But they bring that other side of it, too.”
Andersen’s history with Polynesian players dates to his time in 2003 when he coached at Southern Utah and later as a defensive line coach at Utah. When he took over as Utah State’s head coach in 2008, he re-established the school’s reputation within the Polynesian community in the state. Andersen added Polynesian coaches to his staff, including Ilaisa Tuiaki (recruiting coordinator) and former player Frank Maile (defensive line coach).
At Wisconsin, Andersen has surrounded himself with coaches who have West coast ties and understand what it means to recruit Polynesian players. In addition to Kauha’aha’a, who played and coached at Utah, Badgers defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has experience recruiting Polynesians, having coached at Hawaii from 2008-2011.
“I think the kids will be receptive to this place,” Aranda said in January.
Traditionally, Polynesian players have remained on the West coast at schools such as Utah, Utah State, BYU and Hawaii. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who has worked closely with Andersen over the years, told USA Today in February his team had 45 Polynesian players, the second-most in the country behind Hawaii.
The fact Tolutau had scholarship offers from all four of those schools and turned them down for an opportunity to play at Wisconsin says something about the Badgers’ newfound commitment to recruiting Polynesians.
“Do I expect our roster to look like Utah State or Utah or BYU? No,” Kauha’aha’a said. “If we can get a handful of kids, that will be great.”
Tolutau is considered one of the top prospects in Utah, and he rushed for 1,332 yards with 11 touchdowns last season. Of course, the importance of those numbers in the future could pale in comparison to another number: One.
“You’ve got to get one (Polynesian player) so you can bring some other ones up here,” Kauha’aha’a said. “We’ve been successful in the West. Other schools in the country are starting to do it. If we do it, we’ve got to be committed to it. Wisconsin is far. I’m not going to lie about that. You’ve got to find that one and that way you keep them coming. You’ve got to be dedicated to recruiting Polynesian players.”