Washington State defensive lineman Daniel Ekuale sees no reason to speculate on the departure of Joe Salave’a, the position coach who had ushered Ekuale and numerous other American Samoans to the chilly Palouse to play football.
Yes, he was a father figure to the Samoans and other Polynesians who have played a central role in the Cougars’ defensive revival the past two years. But he was also a private, businesslike man, not given to displays of sentiment, and Ekuale accepts the idea that Salave’a simply left Washington State for Oregon in January because it was the best move for his career and his family.
In other words, he draws no connection between the coach’s flight and the much-lamented brawl at an off-campus party last July that led to the arrest of two Samoan defensive linemen and lent an unending stream of turbulence to the WSU football season.
But Ekuale believes the Cougars need to learn from the episode as they begin preparation for the 2017 season and the defensive linemen get acquainted with new position coach Jeff Phelps.
“It was a letdown,” Ekuale said recently after a WSU spring workout. “As Polynesians, we let coach Joe down. We let our head coach, Mike Leach, down. All the players and coaches — we let them all down when that incident happened. We’ve just got to learn from it and move on. Things happen in life, you make decisions. You’ve got to live with it.”
Salave’a, a former NFL defensive lineman from Samoa who’d been a valued member of Leach’s staff since the head coach’s arrival in 2012, consistently avoided talking publicly about the repercussions of the brawl, along with two other incidents last summer that resulted in the arrest of Samoan players. The wave of incidents was virtually unprecedented in the school’s long, off-and-on history of Polynesian-to-Pullman football culture.
But the troubles were clearly a strain on Salave’a, to judge by comments his wife, Josie, made to the WSU board of regents in November as she and others implored them to intervene in the school-imposed suspension of one of the players implicated in the brawl, Robert Barber. To many observers, football players in general and Polynesians in particular, because of their visibility and other reasons, were paying a disproportionate price for their transgressions.
Ekuale said he was among the numerous football players at the party. As Leach has pointed out repeatedly, the brawl was wide-scale and involved numerous non-football players who were never arrested. Nonetheless, Ekuale said the episode was a bitter pill to Salave’a, who was out of town at the time and may have felt a type of betrayal in the incident.
“It was really hard on him, hearing what happened,” he said. “He treated us like family, brought us here, he was like our dad. For us to go out and do stuff like that, it’s really embarrassing — for us not to think of him, (the way) he protected us and stuff like that.”
Ekuale, a 6-foot-3, 297-pound senior-to-be, started nine games last year and, in terms of both performance and leadership, figures to cast a larger shadow now that Barber has graduated. He said the Cougars need to remember how the visibility factor worked against players like Barber, Shalom Luani and Logan Tago.
“We have a target on our back as Polynesians and as football players too,” he said. “Your name is going to come up in the media — where you’re from, your family. They’re not going to ask, ‘Who’s the other guy?’ They’re not going to ask for a random student. They’re going to ask for this person — ‘He plays for Washington State, he’s a football player. Where does he come from? Who are his parents?’ All that stuff.”
Phelps, the former Minnesota assistant hired to replace Salave’a, has few ties to Washington State or Polynesia. But he said his acclimation to the team has been smooth and the response of his Polynesian athletes has been positive.
“The whole team has been really great letting me in,” Phelps said. “There were no barriers that I had to try to knock down. When you come in, you try to get to know the guys and get to know what makes them tick. I continue to try to do that, and figure that thing out. But they want to win. Kids are great that way. I want to give them the tools to be successful. So it’s really been a great transition.”
It’s made easier by the D-line’s recent success.
“The system wasn’t broken, right?” Phelps said. “Coach Joe did a great job. There’s great players. So I just stepped in and tried to get to know the players, tried to implement a couple of different things that I think are going to help us get maybe to the next level.”
The Polynesian pipeline was a major contributor to that recent success. Ekuale, for one, doesn’t see it being abandoned.
“I think our Poly culture will carry on,” he said. “We’ve got to stay strong, stay together and make the right decisions. That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to make the right decisions.”