Twenty years ago this month, Joe Salave’a carried an Arizona flag around Sun Devil Stadium after the Wildcats beat Arizona State in Tempe.
His final game against the Sun Devils was a great one: Salave’a sacked ASU quarterback Ryan Kealy four times, a record that lasted nearly two decades before UA freshman Kylan Wilborn did it against Colorado last month.
Wilborn is a 6-foot-2-inch, 245-pound defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid. Salave’a was a 6-3, 330-pound defensive tackle who would go on to play nine years in the NFL. In his last two years at Arizona, Salave’a had 17.5 sacks and 29 tackles-for-loss.
On Saturday, Salave’a — now the assistant head coach and defensive line coach at Oregon — will line up against his alma mater. It will be special, he said.
“Oh shoot man, it always brings back memories of the days when you were part of that team there, trying to win ballgames,” he said.
The 42-year-old Salave’a has already beaten Arizona once this year.
Salave’a helped lure defensive lineman Austin Faoliu to the Ducks last winter. Faoliu decommitted from Arizona on Jan. 11, the day Salave’a was hired at Oregon, and verbally committed to the Ducks 10 days later. Now, the true freshman is a key cog in Oregon’s defensive line rotation.
Faoliu is one of a handful of Oregon freshmen who once planned on playing in Tucson. Salave’a, an adept recruiter with deep connections in the Polynesian community, is one of the keys to the Ducks’ recruiting success. He did the same at Arizona in 2011, when he convinced linemen Sani Fuimaono, Aiulua Fanene and Lene Maiava to become Wildcats. Salave’a recruited star defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa and safety Shalom Luani to Washington State, where he coached from 2012-16.
“Joe is a great person first and foremost, a really good recruiter and he’s a hell of a football coach,” said Willie Taggart, Oregon’s first-year head coach. “I think a lot of our improvement that we’ve made on defense this year, Joe has a lot to do with that improvement we’ve made. You look at the job he’s done with our defensive line, it’s big time.”
As a coach, Salave’a is 3-1 all-time against the Wildcats. He coached under Mike Stoops at Arizona in 2011, but was not retained when Rich Rodriguez was hired. Rodriguez opted to hire longtime cohort Bill Kirelawich away from West Virginia instead.
The Star spoke to Salave’a this week about life at Oregon, working and playing for Dick Tomey and his experience on Arizona’s coaching staff.
How have you enjoyed Oregon so far?
A: “I really haven’t had a chance to take it in. It’s gone by so fast. I feel like it was just yesterday that we got here in the spring so this season has been really, really fast, but it’s been a good environment. The goal is still the same, trying to win ballgames.”
You got your start coaching with Dick Tomey at San Jose State. Do you still keep in touch with him?
A: “I’m still close with a lot of those guys, Coach Tomey in particular. He’s helped a lot of guys. For me in particular, I have a special place for Coach Tomey because of what he means to me. Going through some not-so-good days and he’s always been a steadfast leader for me and to this day if I have something I need to run by or question or anything, he’s one of those guys that I’ll call up. He’s got a lot of wisdom, he’s well-respected in the community and all across the country, even on the islands.”
You played for him and coached with him. Is there anything you learned or observed in talking to Tomey that you’ve taken into the way you approach coaching?
A: “Well, one thing is, you gotta coach it. Either you’re allowing it to happen or you’re teaching it. Those are the things right off the bat with Coach. He stresses a lot about teaching the players and knowing the players off the field. You gotta invest in the players, not just on the field but off the field. You get that right off the bat visiting with Coach Tomey. He’s had success because of his relationships beyond the scope of football.
“Those are the things that hold true now. I believe mentoring and advising these young men to be prepared for life after (football). Obviously, those are the things that I got to learn from Coach Tomey over the years.”
Your first Pac-12 coaching experience came when you were hired onto Mike Stoops’ staff in 2011. That only lasted a year, but what was it like getting your feet wet at your old school?
A: “You know, things came up really fast to return there and be a part of that year. It’s not hard to learn how to be around the community knowing what the program meant. Those things … you go off and pursue your lifelong careers and families but that place will always have a special place in my heart.”
How tough was it when things didn’t work out with that staff, and then Rich Rodriguez went in a different direction? Was it hard?
A: “Shoot, not really. Understand, I’ve been around a while. I might be new to the profession, but I’ve been around football for a long time throughout college. So the business side of things, it is what it is. You just want to make sure that whoever it is that gets to oversee the program will help reestablish and have continuity in maintaining a competitive program. Decisions were made and we weren’t part of the plan. You then turn to where you go to programs where you’re needed and that’s just the way that panned out. My whole contribution to our team and the program I’m a part of is giving it all I have and making sure we get the players that are going to give us the chance to win ballgames.”
Recently, Arizona’s Kylan Wilborn had four sacks in a game. It was the first time that had happened at Arizona since you did it against ASU in 1997. How much do you remember from that game?
A: “Listen, I probably remember more of the plays that I didn’t make than the ones that I made. I’m very critical of those little things but man, it shouldn’t take that long to have those kind of numbers be broken. I’m excited for that young man there; that’s telling of the talent and the kind of kids you need at this level and in this conference.”
You’re not with Arizona anymore, but do you still get a little kick out of beating ASU?
A: “You gotta understand, man, that’ll never change. You’re never immune to those things and I’m sure a lot of former athletes from both schools it still holds true to this point about their thoughts about the rivalry.
“I’m not going to scream and hoot and holler but, you know, you’re always mindful with the TV set around Thanksgiving season of how that game pans out because I bled and contributed to that very program. It’s hard to say I don’t have any thoughts about that rivalry.”