Big Joe to UW, USC: Thanks, but no thanks

WITH MARTIN STADIUM's green turf surrounding him, WSU defensive line coach Joe Salave'a is admiring the new football ops building. When completed in May, it's a building he'll move his office into. It's a place UW and USC wanted to keep him out of -- both made him job offers this winter.

But when you talk with Salave'a and learn about his past, it's easy to see why he craves calling Pullman home. Decked in Washington State gear from head to toe standing in Martin Stadium last Saturday, he looked to his left at the $61 million football operations building.

He then pointed behind his large 6-3, 330-pound body to the press box, which was completed before the 2012 season. Moments later his eyes peered to the right, looking at the brand new scoreboard, which went up before last season.

"Look at this. This has all created a buzz here at Wazzu, man," Salave'a said.

And the current buzz, made up of the new facilities and the Cougs' first bowl season in 10 years in 2013, also had Pac-12 schools taking notice. More specifically, in Salave'a's case, Washington and USC.

Sources told CF.C that for a couple weeks in late December through early January, Salave'a was being courted by a pair of Pac-12 schools. Multiple, independent sources said the nine-year NFL veteran had received job offers from both the Huskies' Chris Petersen and the Trojans' Steve Sarkisian to coach their defensive lines and that Salave'a was mulling over whether or not to leave the Palouse.

This week, Salave'a confirmed to CF.C that both schools did indeed put job offers on the table.

"Nowadays everyone wants to build and they want to progress their programs," Salave'a said. "Part of that is not just recruiting kids, but also recruiting coaches. I was flattered to get that type of response from these other programs, but I thought about our kids and the way they carry themselves and the teaching we're doing and still have to do. That was a big factor in why I decided to stay. I want to make sure my family is taken care of too.

Not a coincidence: Joe Salave'a is all smiles after a spring practice, while d-linemen Gerald Sterling (94) and Moritz Christ (62) look exhausted.
"My own kids (Katalina and JJ) didn't like the idea. They wanted to keep the continuity. I'm excited here and want to make sure my kids continue to progress in the school system. It's a close-knit family and that's something you can't duplicate in some of these places. I want to make sure first and foremost that my family is being taken care of and secondly, we have a good thing here and I want to make sure we see it through."

But why put roots down in Pullman? Why not scamper to the big city?

"This is not a bus stop or just a destination," Salave'a said. "Some people go to one place and hope to get to the next big thing, but I can tell you, Washington State is the big thing. Wazzu and being here in the Palouse is not one of those things where it's a desperate move. This is the place to be and if you want to get on, this is the time to get on."

Pullman is a place where Salave'a 'got on' three years ago, having thrived as the d-line coach since the moment he set foot on campus. That journey to Pullman, though, was one that included plenty of adversity, including a childhood experience few know about, that forced him to mature quicker than others.

A unique situation that turned him into a man
The memory of that event hasn't faded for Salave'a. Walking into LAX Airport in Los Angeles as a 14-year-old, he was with members of his traveling baseball team, which had just competed in a tournament in Fullerton, Calif. Salave'a was ready to head back home to Leone, American Samoa, when he saw a woman waving her hands at him.

That woman, whom he had never met before, turned out to be his aunt and she let him know that he wasn't going back home to Leone. Instead, he needed to grab his things because he was going to live with her, right near San Diego and he would go to high school in America.

Salave'a thought, what in the world?


In an unscripted moment this spring, Cougar defenders swarm Salave'a and pry the ball loose.

"I got to the airport and I'm getting flagged down by a lady from the other way," he recalled. "Sometimes when you hear the names, you put one and one together, but I didn't know who she was. She dropped my dad's name, though, and then after a quick phone call home to my parent's house in Samoa, I drove home with her. That was the last time I saw my baseball team."

Having just completed the eighth grade, Salave'a's aunt, who was married to a retired Marine at the time, enrolled him in Oceanside High where he began his prep career shortly after. Salave'a wasn't a native speaker of English. He was now more than 4,500 miles away from home and everything he knew, a 17-hour plane ride away from his parents, and all at the age of 14, without notice or even having the slightest idea it was coming.

"It was tough because in some things within our culture, you're raised to listen to your elders, be respectful and never step out of line. When older folks in your family decide something, you don't question it.

"The culture shock was the big transition for me too. You go from the 25-mile-an-hour speed limits on the islands to 80 miles here in the States (laugh). It was fast paced and I had to grow up a little faster because I lived with a family I had never met before and had barely even heard of."

THE TRANSITION, although life-altering and laborious, helped Salave'a get to the point he is today. A football standout at Oceanside in the early ‘90s, he accepted a full-ride scholarship to Arizona, where he flourished as a defensive lineman from 1994-97, leading the Wildcats in sacks and tackles for loss in his final two seasons.

He then went on to a nine-year career in the NFL, which began with the Tennessee Titans when he was drafted in the fourth round in 1998. He played five seasons with Tennessee, followed by stops in Baltimore and San Diego in 2003. He spent his final three seasons, from 2004-06, with the Washington Redskins.

His college and NFL careers more than likely don't happen, though, if his parents didn't decide to change his life and put him in the U.S. to stay with his aunt, he said.

"That was pops whole idea of me moving out here," Salave'a said. "We didn't have enough money to pay for me to go to college and he knew the recruiting process wasn't impossible in Samoa, but it's a whole lot easier to get seen here in the United States. I didn't know it at the time, but it all worked out.

"Looking back on it now, I think with that experience and all of the adversities I faced, I wouldn't change anything. It allowed me to open my eyes on what to expect and I learned you have to be proactive in life."

How his childhood experience affects what Salave'a does
When you talk with recruits or current WSU players about Salave'a, the first thing you hear is how down to earth he is. It becomes clear the man has a true connection with players of all ages, both on and off the field. Mike Leach has seen this too, which is why he was undoubtedly happy to keep him in Pullman when Washington and Southern Cal came calling, only to be left empty handed.

"He's really passionate about football and, of course, he always has been," Leach said. "He's passionate as a player, passionate as a coach and his enthusiasm alone rubs off on a lot of people, even beyond his players."


Salave'a is a blur while exhorting on his defensive linemen during Midnight Maneuvers back in February.

Salave'a, who at 39 whom Leach quipped looks like he could still strap on the pads and play the game, has been a key recruiter for the Cougars in his time out on the Palouse. He is instantly recognizable to recruits and their families in American Samoa and in Hawaii.

I asked if his childhood experience moving to the United States has helped him understand what prep prospects are going through and if it helps create a bond during the recruiting process because he's already lived it.

"I think there's some truth to that, as well as being a professional athlete," Salave'a said. "It's tough to make sense of it, but you try to teach them things that will prevent them from making any kind of mistakes. You always want to save these young ones from repeating any kind of deal you experience coming up, so they can stay ahead.

"You have to remember you have guys from all walks of life too. That's important because you can't lump everyone together, but you can get everyone situated out of homes and into their college life."

WSU uses a group recruiting approach under Leach and in addition to American Samoa and Hawaii, Salave'a also helps spot recruit in the States, including California. One school in particular Salave'a has plugged in at is the College of San Mateo, which seems to pump out double-digit Division-I athletes almost every year. WSU the past two seasons has brought in defensive end Lyman Faoliu, offensive lineman Devonte McClain and linebacker Justin Sagote, a senior in 2013, from the JC powerhouse.

CSM defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator Tim Tulloch goes way back with Salave'a and said each year when the WSU staff comes looking for prospects, they're always welcome on his campus. Salave'a is a big part of that.

"I've known Joe since his Oceanside days," Tulloch said in a recent interview with CF.C. "What he's doing at Washington State is great. He's always had a big personality and you can tell he does a great job of connecting with his players and making sure they're staying on top of things when they get to college.

"We've sent some of our kids up to Washington State and with Joe up there, we know that they're in good hands. They're a team that is on the rise and that staff as a whole does a good job."

YOU CAN'T FORGET about the players on campus he's connected with either. Nose tackle Toni Pole, who was recruited by the former staff, enters his third season working with Big Joe this season. The senior, who checks in at 6-1, 290-pounds, didn't mince words when asked about his relationship with his position coach.

"He's the kind of leader where he won't accept you giving anything less than your full effort," Pole said. "It doesn't matter if it's walk-through or practice. If you're not doing something correctly, he's going to let you know about it.

"I appreciate what he's done for me personally because I won't lie to you, I used to be a lazy player. Now he's made me a player that likes to work hard and I'm trying to come out here and get better on the field and even off the field. He's had a big role in that."

That off-the-field relationship, which Salave'a is known for having with all his players, Pole said, is what has made their bond even stronger.

"You can go to him about anything," Pole said. "Whether it's football, life, or even relationship-type stuff, he's there for you. You could go up to him and tell him you're just not having a good day and he'll be quick to invite you to sit down with him and just talk about life. He's a people person and very approachable and the big thing I love about him is that he won't sugarcoat stuff with you.

"He's honest with you and tells you how things are. He helps you and encourages you. He's the type of person I like to play for. He inspires you to play hard and he's a guy you don't want to disappoint. He makes you give everything you've got."


Salave'a says there is no place he'd rather be that Washington State, after turning down UW and USC job offers this winter.

For Salave'a, he considers himself lucky to be able to go to work at a place each day that allows him to make an impact on the lives of young men.

"Man, I'm just grateful every day to be in the position where I can wear different hats," he said. "I feel like I can be a counselor, a teacher and a coach all in one. I love what I do. You get to build bonds with these kids and watch them become young men. I couldn't ask for more and it's a blessing to be in this position."

As he walked off the Martin Stadium field this past Saturday, Salave'a made one last round of goodbyes before exiting the tunnel toward his office. In between practices, I walked by. His door was wide open, and he was deep into film review.

And when the Cougs hit the road later this fall with the goal of a bowl game for the second straight season, Salave'a will walk through airports all over the country wearing his WSU gear. This time, though, no one will be there to suddenly stop him and tell him he has a different route home. He'll head back to Pullman, where he's eager to return.

It's a place he calls home, a place where he says he and his family belong.

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