Steven M. Sipple, Parker Gabriel and Chris Basnett take stock of the Nebraska football team midway through preseason camp, among other topics.
If you’re ever so fortunate as to end up at a barbecue at the Tuioti residence, a couple of things can be safely assumed.
One, of course, is that there will be plenty of food.
Another is that you’ll eat rice. Always rice.
“The best to me is always chicken and rice. I can do that all day long,” Tony Tuioti, Nebraska’s third-year defensive line coach, said recently.
Tony was born in Samoa and grew up in Southern California; and his wife, Keala, hails from the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, so, naturally, there’s going to be an island flair.
“You’ve got to soak it for a good two days,” Tony says of whatever meat you’re marinating. “Put some ginger in there, brown sugar, white sugar, soy sauce, it’s good. The boys like that.”
The boys might be the Tuiotis’ four sons, might be the 15-odd defensive linemen he coaches at Nebraska and might just be all of them at the same time.
The Tuiotis have been barbecuing — and cooking up perhaps Nebraska football’s best position group — in Lincoln since February 2019 now.
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If you’re an accountant or an engineer, maybe 2½ years in one spot is nothing to write home about. Life as a college football coaching family, though, can be a nomadic one. The Tuiotis are no strangers to that, and when you’ve got seven kids like Tony and Keala do — Teisa, Teivis, Teilor, Teitum, Teimana, Teiyana and Teinia — changing jobs isn’t quite as simple as moving from one condo to the next.
“We lean on our faith a lot and we try to grow where we’re planted,” Tony Tuioti said. “We can’t control everything that happens, so all we can really control is our attitude toward opportunities. That’s something I’ve always tried to teach my kids.”
Given the way college football works in general and the way Tuioti’s career path had arced up until 2019, it would have been perhaps difficult to guess that Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places, would become what it has to the Tuioti family.
Consider this: When Nebraska steps on the field against Illinois on Aug. 28, it will officially mark the first time in Tuioti’s coaching career that he’s held the same position for three straight seasons. He once spent six years at his alma mater, Hawaii, but held three different titles.
— 2000-01: Graduate assistant, Hawaii.
— 2003-04: Head coach, Kalaheo (Hawaii) High.
— 2007: Defensive coordinator, Silverado (Nevada) High.
— 2008-09: Director of player personnel, Hawaii.
— 2010-11: Defensive line coach, Hawaii.
— 2012-13: Linebackers coach, Hawaii.
— 2014-15: Assistant DL coach, Cleveland Browns.
— 2016: Director of player personnel at Michigan.
— 2017: Outside linebackers coach, California.
— 2018: Defensive line coach, California.
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Tuioti’s 11th different title in 19 seasons spanning six states came when NU defensive line coach Mike Dawson left for the NFL, creating an opening on Scott Frost’s staff.
UCLA defensive coordinator Jerry Azzinaro, who had worked with Tuioti at Cal, called another of his former colleagues in NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.
Azzinaro and Chinander worked together at Oregon and with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Chinander got a clear message from the mentor.
“‘Tony’s the guy. He can teach them how you want them to be taught. I taught him, he knows what the system is, he knows how to get it done and it’s not going to be a tough transition,’” Chinander recalled recently. “Then we interviewed Tony and he did an outstanding job in that interview, so the transition was very, very easy.
“I’m super, super glad he’s here. He’s made a really big difference on our football team.”
Indeed, he’s had time to really put his mark on the Husker defensive line group. For the first time in his career, Tuioti has had a long stretch with no introductions required.
“He matters a lot to me. I really trust him,” junior Deontre Thomas said. “We’ve had some deep talks and I really trust him. He really trusted me. The talks we’ve had, the relationship we’ve had, I trust him a lot. He has faith and, same. The faith that I have, I respect him a lot.”
Thomas was recruited by John Parrella and coached by him in 2017. Then he had Mike Dawson for a season. When Tuioti got to NU, he was Thomas’ third coach in as many seasons.
Slowly but surely, the bond grew.
“The way he was coaching was different than the way Coach Dawson was coaching. It was different than the way Parrella was coaching,” Thomas said. “So we just kind of had to go through the drills, the repetition. Then you just kind of see that we’re actually playing the game within drills. So, once I saw that, the drills he’s been doing with us, they come up every time in the game. So that’s when I really started seeing, OK, he really knows what he’s talking about. He’s real.”
So, too, is the Tuioti family’s connection with Lincoln. They admittedly didn’t know much when they first arrived.
“Not much. Not at all. We didn’t know what to expect,” Tuioti said. “Just our previous experience being in the Midwest, the people are really nice and really genuine, they love to eat and they love football. We knew that about the Midwest, but didn’t know much else.”
Now, though, three of his boys have played football for Lincoln Southeast — Teivis is in his second season at the University of Nevada, Teilor is going to play junior college ball in New Mexico this fall and Teitum is a heralded class of 2023 recruit who has several Power Five offers (including Nebraska) as he enters his junior season for Knights coach Ryan Gottula. The youngest of the four boys, Teimana, is coming up through the program, too.
“To have all four boys go to one school, man, it’s been a blessing,” Tuioti said. “Coach Gottula there does a great job and my boys really enjoy playing for him. …
“It’s been awesome just to be able to catch games that are just a few minutes away at Seacrest, right when I'm done with evening meetings, I’m shooting straight over to Seacrest to try to go catch a game. Just to sit in the stands and be a dad and cheer them on, it’s really something special.”
There have been times in the past when chasing the next job, the next promotion, has taken precedence. The Tuiotis are in a different place now.
“My wife, Keala, and I, we sit back and think to ourselves, sometimes as opportunities come up, the kids now are the ones that we have to think about,” he said. “So, to stay and let them be able to settle in and enjoy their high school experience or see what other opportunities are out there, we’re at a place now where we want to see our kids finish through school and have stability and be able to play sports.”
He’s the first to say there’s only so much control he has over that, and there’s plenty of work to do. Being settled somewhere is not the same thing as being satisfied.
Still, Tuioti received a $25,000 raise this offseason to $400,000 annually, making him the only one of NU’s 10 assistants to get a salary bump in addition to a one-year extension.
He’s also the only one of the group who hadn’t coached with Frost before he became the head man at Nebraska, but Tuioti has become part of the group, just as his family has become part of the Lincoln community.
Grow where you’re planted, as he would say.
“It’s just a good feeling to know that you’re wanted here. And the feeling is mutual,” he said.