Bishop Taumoelau Kaveinga of the Westchester 3rd (Tongan) Ward in the Inglewood LDS Stake met Tuesday night with his son, Uona Kaveinga, for a private one-on-one meeting at his church office – as he does with all his youth – to discuss topics related to spiritual and temporal matters. Perhaps the most pressing topic was the momentous life-impacting decision his 18-year-old son plans to make live on Fox Sports Northwest regional TV (6 p.m. PST) Wednesday night.
With the growing suspense amid widespread speculation that it was a close recruiting battle between USC, BYU and UCLA, Uona told TBS Tuesday in his first public interview in weeks, that “It’s down to USC and BYU. I have a pretty good idea where I want to go.” His father and bishop was the first person he confided in – and, for now, neither will reveal his decision.
Kaveinga had originally verbally committed to UCLA but later decommitted. In early January, he verbally committed to BYU. Then USC head coach Pete Carroll and new UCLA head coach Rick Neuheisel each made an impactful and concerted late push to land the coveted linebacker. Carroll convinced Kaveinga to take his final recruiting visit to the Trojans’ campus.
In the end, it came down to USC and BYU. Though Kaveinga never publicly decommitted from the Cougars, USC head coach Pete Carroll and linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. made a powerful and effective impression in a last-minute wide open battle for his binding signature on a National Letter of Intent Signing Day on Wednesday.
Carefully non-committal in his comments, Kaveinga spoke glowingly about the personal appeal of USC: “The positive attitude and swagger they carry at USC makes you want to go there. They complete for the national championship every year, plus they’re my hometown team.
“Pete Carroll is a great coach, especially in big games, and he expects a lot from you every day. You have to bring your A-game when you play there. He said they are only recruiting two linebackers. They don’t guarantee anything; they just promise you’ll get a shot to compete,” Kaveinga remarked.
He summed it up: “If I select USC, it’s because they have a great football program, they are close to home, only 10 minutes, and I can see my family all the time.”
Asked whether the constant national media spotlight on the USC program would be a significant factor given his future aspirations to play in the NFL, Kaveinga pointed out, “I’m not worried about getting exposure for the NFL. I come from a high school [Leuzinger] that doesn’t get a lot of exposure.”
On the flipside for BYU, Kaveinga was complimentary of the Cougars for entirely different reasons: “I really like what BYU has to offer. It’s the only college program in the world that offers [LDS Church] members high morals, honor code, academics and football. I also like the people and surroundings there; you can feel the spirit way more.”
He added: “[BYU head coach] Bronco Mendenhall has all my respect. He’s really down to earth and expects a lot from you as a football player and priesthood holder. I appreciate what they offer, especially what Coach Mendenhall has done the last couple of years.”
The BYU Cougars, with back-to-back Mountain West Conference championships, matching 11-2 season records and consecutive Las Vegas Bowl wins against Pac-10 foes (UCLA and Oregon), was ranked a Top 15 team in the final Associated Press (media) and USA Today (coaches) national polls in the last two years.
Kaveinga made no secret that virtually all his immediate family – “both my parents, my brothers and sisters, especially my two sisters” – want him to select his LDS religion’s flagship university in Provo, Utah.
“If [my parents] had to make the choice, I know it would be BYU. That’s my parents’ number-one school,” he said.
Kaveinga’s father, Taumoelau, an immigrant from Tonga who raised eight children in California with his wife, told TBS that their family had their weekly Family Home Evening Monday night expecting Uona to announce his college choice. He didn’t.
“He keeps everything quiet. I don’t understand him. I explain to him that BYU is the best place to go. He knows that BYU is the best for him. We [shall] see what’s his decision and we support him. If he goes to BYU, perfect. If he goes to USC, then we still support him. Right now, USC is the one [pushing] very hard,” the Kaveinga patriarch confided.
His mother, Velonika, conscious of the pressure her son was under from coaches and family, offered her succinct comments: “He’s 18 now [Uona turned 18 last Saturday]. We all want him to go to BYU, but I bother him too much and I have to leave him to make his decision.”
Both father and son confirm Uona has firm plans to serve a two-year LDS mission after playing one year of college, adding than USC coach Pete Carroll reassured them he will support their wishes and hold Uona’s scholarship for when he returns from a church mission.
At BYU, more than 80 percent of the Cougars’ football team in the Mendenhall era have served or are serving voluntary LDS missions worldwide – where players and their families pay all their own living expenses, often in poverty-stricken third world countries.
Taumoelau’s personal impressions of Mendenhall were also revealing: “No one compares to Coach Mendenhall. He’s very spiritual. He’s a very, very good coach. Every time I see him, I’m always happy and glad for the opportunity to meet with him,” he continued.
“As a member [of the LDS Church], we can feel the spirit with him and talk about things we don’t talk with other people. He’s the best. He’s doing the right thing and a good job,” the father added – referring to Mendenhall’s unyielding focus on higher academics from all his players, living the school’s stringent Honor Code, and renewed excellence on the football field. “Everything is in BYU – spiritual, athletics and education.”
Asked Tuesday afternoon to make an “on-the-record” prediction as to which school Uona would select, Taumoelau said, “I think its 50-50 right now. I don’t know.”
Pressing further, TBS asked the father if he had to hazard a guess and make an “off-the-record” prediction, he hesitated, contemplated it for less than a minute, and then he mentioned one of the two schools by name.
In a later interview with TBS, Uona was asked what his own “off-the-record” prediction was. In addition, he was also asked what he thought about his father’s guess: “I think it’s a good guess,” he concluded.