It's hard not to notice Joe Salave'a wherever he goes. A hulking former NFL defensive lineman isn't exactly the most inconspicuous person in the world, and Salave'a, still a very large (but fit!) man, is easily the most recognizable Washington State assistant coach currently on staff. And yet he has somewhat flew under the radar when it came to public attention while in Pullman … until now.
Salave'a is making waves as of late with his recruiting prowess. It seems like just about every other day now we hear about another commitment, with Salave'a being mentioned as the man responsible. We expected him to bring players from the islands to Washington State when he was hired, but I'm not sure anyone expected him to be this strong in the overall recruiting game.
Who wouldn't want to play for Salave'a -- a man who spent time in the NFL as a space-eating defensive tackle, and played for those Desert Swarm defenses at Arizona? He hasn't been a coach very long, moving on from the NFL and beginning his coaching career at San Jose State before a trip to Arizona and finally Washington State. He has experience in the NFL, of course, but more than that he's got a magnetic personality.
That personality, I think, is what makes Salave'a such a strong recruiter. If you've been paying attention to recruiting over the last month, it's likely you've seen Salave'a all over the place -- recruits tweet photos of him during in-home visits, and he's been credited as the closer (along with Mike Leach) in stories about a number of recruits lately. Salave'a is making some noise, and it's been a great thing for the Washington State football program.
Interlude: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the rumor about Salave'a being offered a spot on Steve Sarkisian's coaching staff. It began with a deleted tweet by what appears to be his niece. All has been quiet on that front, but from all it doesn't appear Salave'a is heading south.
@gmartlive Don’t think that is happening— FootballScoop Staff (@footballscoop) December 24, 2013
Making noise is a fitting phrase to use when referring to Salave'a, as well. One could sit in the library on campus in Pullman and probably hear him on the Martin Stadium field during practice. His deep, booming voice echoes throughout practice, but he's rarely yelling in anger. Salave'a gets fired up to coach, and is seemingly always shouting words of encouragement and instruction to the defense. It's jarring to hear at first, but watching Salave'a work with players during practice lends insight into why he's been such a solid recruiter and position coach.
One of my favorite stories about Salave'a takes me back to the end of Leach's first spring practice period. At the beginning of the last spring practice, players circled up for bull in the ring -- a drill WSU uses to start practice in which two players enter a circle and try to knock each other out of the circle. Salave'a was pumped up, and off came the shirt. Not quite like Hulk tearing it off, but he threw his shirt off and looked like he was about to step into the ring and get it on.
That's just one example of his intensity -- something he sustains every minute of every day on the practice field and in games. Players get fired up because he's fired up, and the defensive line has adopted his persona. He wants guys that play tough, that hit first and hit hard, that don't take no crap from nobody. And his defensive line is getting there, slowly but surely.
I interviewed Salave'a after one fall camp practice in 2012 -- a practice in which Ioane Gauta split his nose open, leaving huge blood stains all over his jersey and pants. He didn't miss a beat, all while Salave'a shouted words of encouragement and joked that Junior looked like he ate a person. Talking to Salave'a, he singled that attitude out as something he likes to see: If an offensive lineman pops a defensive lineman, he wants to see his guys hit back twice, and twice as hard. He instills that attitude in his players and always works to toughen them up, to have them play with a certain level of controlled anger.
There's a softer side to Salave'a that makes him appealing, too. For as intense as he is on the field, he's a big teddy bear off it. Speaking to him a few times since he came to Washington State, it's clear just how much he cares about his players. Of course, he speaks with the same intensity he coaches with, because passion never stops, but I found him to be a fun interview.
Another story: Salave'a obviously brought Robert Barber, among others, from American Samoa to Pullman. There's a special bond with the kids he brings from the islands -- more than a typical recruiter/recruit, coach/player relationship. When Barber went down with a nasty knee injury during practice, it bothered Salave'a. He stayed with him and made sure he was okay before Barber was carted off the field. Pretty normal stuff. But it didn't stop there.
One of the biggest worries when a freshman goes down with a significant injury -- especially a freshman from a place far away -- is how they'll hold up mentally. We saw it with Nik Kopivica when he tore his ACL as a freshman (his parents came from Serbia and stayed with him to take care of him for a while). Salave'a played that role for Barber. During practice and games, Barber would limp around on crutches, following Salave'a around like a puppy. Salave'a kept him engaged as Barber rehabbed and adjusted to college life. The big defensive line coach takes his role as a mentor seriously and is invested in every aspect of his players' lives.
Coaching isn't just about finding players, recruiting players, and developing them on the field. Assistant coaches are vital in ushering players through a crucial time in their lives. The head coach sets the agenda and direction of the program; assistants do the hands-on work and spend a ton of time working individually with players at their position. They push players on the field, but the good ones spend time learning what makes each player tick, what they love and hate, what trials and tribulations they're going through, and spend hours upon hours being a mentor.
While this 60 minutes piece isn't about Salave'a it gives you an idea about life in Samoa
When Salave'a was hired, we pointed out his charity work in American Samoa. He's not just going through the motions: Salave'a genuinely carries about giving back to his home and where he grew up. And it shows in how well he's respected on the islands. I've heard stories about his recruiting and visits to Samoa -- he's very much loved and respected, and remains a larger than life figure there. Parents trust him to be a father figure and mentor to their kids in college, and from all accounts he takes that responsibility seriously.
Salave'a is a strong role model, especially for kids from American Samoa. He grew up on the islands, went to college on the mainland and became an NFL player. He now uses the money he made and notoriety he gained to help the next generation of kids from American Samoa. His actions say a lot about who he is.
Just like he did at Texas Tech, Leach has put together a solid staff that, as he preaches all the time, is always coaching. Whether in practice, during games, or off the field, the assistants at Washington State work their tails off to develop young men. Salave'a may be the strongest example of this.
We're lucky to have Big Joe at Washington State. Not just because of his recruiting acumen, but because of who he is as a person and the passion he brings to the Washington State football program every day. We're getting closer to seeing the front seven that Salave'a built. Get excited for the future.