STILLWATER — When Mike Gundy has taken certain recent in-home recruiting visits, he’s felt like he’s stepped into a totally different world.
Different, yet familiar.
The Oklahoma State coach has been surrounded by more and more large, yet fiercely close Polynesian families who are sending a son — or a nephew, or brother, or cousin — off to play college football.
Gundy is hoping those recruits will see the parallels between their families and the atmosphere he’s tried to build within his Cowboy program. And so far, that new recruiting focus has yielded results, with OSU bringing in two Polynesian players in each of the last two classes.
“You’re not going to break their family up,” Gundy said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here. You bring young men in that the very most important thing is their family. The ones I’ve gone on home visits to have large families and they take care of their people. There is a genuine love and compassion in their family.
“The way that we’re all raised and the values that are instilled in us when they come here, then that will spread among our staff and players.”
In 2013, OSU signed Ofa Hautau, a junior college transfer who became an immediate rotation player at defensive tackle, and Vili Leveni, a highly regarded defensive end who redshirted this past season. Last week, three-star running back Sione Palelei and three-star offensive lineman Lem Galea’i officially chose the Cowboys. OSU was also in play for three-star defensive end Sione Teuhema before he signed with LSU.
A key link to landing those Polynesian players? Beni Tonga, OSU’s first-year player development specialist who was able to recruit on the road. Gundy also alluded to bringing in another Polynesian staff member soon, though he wouldn’t drop a name.
“(Tonga) would tell me that they’re trying to build a Polynesian foundation here,” Galea’i said, “like, start a ‘Poly group’ like how other schools have done, like Utah and all them.
“He talked to me about how (we) could be the first ones that start another Poly tradition here at Oklahoma State. I like that. I wanted to join that. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Gundy joked that it feels like every recruit Tonga has brought to Stillwater has been a cousin.
That’s a bit of a stretch. But there are tons of connections.
Tonga and Palelei’s father go way back, as they played high school football together in Utah. Palelei also grew up in Utah with Hautau, who made sure to call Palelei during the recruiting process. And before arriving at OSU, Tonga was on the coaching staff at Snow College in Utah, where Hautau played before coming to Stillwater.
“It wasn’t the biggest part, but it’s one (factor),” Palelei said of how much those relationships impacted his decision to come to OSU. “ … there’s nothing like being able to feel like home and to be able to play something you love. It was a big part.”
Additionally, Galea’i, a Euless (Texas) Trinity product, and Leveni, a Hurst (Texas) L.D. Bell grad, played against each other in high school.
And it turns out Palelei and Galea’i really are distant cousins.
During the recruiting process, their families determined they’re related through Galea’i’s father’s side and Palelei’s mother’s side.
“I was like, dang, that’s ironic,” Palelei said.
Even crazier: Through Facebook posts and, yes, family stories, Galea’i discovered that his great uncle worked for the airline company that originally brought Tonga to the U.S. as a teenager.
Now, that Polynesian presence is starting to make an impact in several areas of the OSU program, such as the food that is served at training table and during recruiting visit weekends.
Yet it still comes back to the people and relationships. Gundy loves the way the Polynesians diversify his team, in the same way that football teaches city kids to mingle and bond with country boys.
“College football breaks down a lot of barriers, and I get so much enjoyment watching it,” Gundy said. “ … It’s been educating and interesting for me. I have a great interest in exploring options with what we’ve done with Beni. I enjoy that part of recruiting.”
And Galea’i only hopes that Polynesian influence continues to grow.
“We’ll start little by little, just by putting the Polynesian people out there,” he said, “just to show what we’re made of and what kind of characteristics we have toward our family, which is our team.”