Must people use the term “dream job” to describe the career they always wanted to pursue.
That certainly is true for new BYU running backs coach Harvey Unga — but in many ways it had another meaning as well.
The former Cougar star had been part of the BYU football program as a graduate assistant for the past four years, describing it during Thursday’s conference call as “grinding” it out.
Meanwhile his wife, former BYU women’s basketball star Keilani Unga, had gotten an opportunity of her own as she became an assistant coach at UVU.
“When she took her job at UVU, I’m not going to lie; it was kind of bittersweet,” Harvey Unga said with a chuckle. “I had gone through the grind for four years and she came in and took something right away. But it’s been fun for the both of us.”
Both Harvey and Keilani Unga knew that Harvey’s time as a graduate assistant was drawing to a close, so they might have to face some tough decisions about what to do if he ended up having coaching opportunities out of state.
“She has always been my No. 1 fan, from my playing days to now,” Harvey Unga said. “She’s been my rock. We talked about it and kind of mapped out different scenarios that may have come up. We felt like if it turned out to be the right fit that would help us along this path, then she said she was up for going wherever we needed to go and doing whatever we needed to do. It was tough but I was grateful for her willingness to do something like that and be so selfless.”
Instead, Thursday’s announcement that Harvey Unga had been hired to coach the Cougar running backs is the ideal situation since both of them can pursue their separate coaching career paths.
“She was ecstatic,” Harvey Unga said. “We both kind of started crying. She loves what she is doing and she’s a great coach. The girls love her and she has been doing tremendous things. Then everything worked out and we are blessed and fortunate to be here.”
Keilani Unga posted on her Instagram account, “Words cannot describe how I feel rn! So proud and excited for this new chapter babe!”
Being able to have things work out so well for his family allowed him to revel in getting a position he had wanted for more than a decade.
“It started being my dream my freshman year at BYU in 2006,” Harvey Unga said. “Lance Reynolds was the running back coach at the time. I didn’t expect for my football career to take off like it did, so I was facing the reality of things. I told Coach Reynolds that I would love to get into coaching when my playing career was done. As the years went by with all my coaches, it was like this is what I want to do, what I love.”
That’s why he went through the years of being a student assistant and a graduate assistant, not knowing for certain where it would lead.
When then-BYU running backs coach AJ Steward left to take a job at Arizona in February, there was a sense that this might be an opening for Harvey Unga to take the next step.
“On the day AJ Steward took the job in Arizona, he actually called to let me know and said that he hoped I was thinking about it and going to put my hat in the ring,” Harvey Unga said. “He felt that I was ready for it. From there, I was just rolling with the punches.”
Over the weeks that followed, Harvey Unga took over the running back unit on an interim basis, including during the first couple of weeks of spring camp before it was canceled as part of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“I have no idea as far as the length of time of the hiring process,” Harvey Unga said. “I’m assuming (BYU head coach Kalani Sitake and offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes) and all those guys felt the need to make sure they were crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s to make sure they had the right guy, the right fit. That’s probably the reason that it was a little bit longer than I would’ve wanted.”
In the press release announcing the hiring, Sitake expressed his confidence that Harvey Unga is the right person for the job.
“Harvey is a great young coach who was an elite player for BYU and is an extremely humble person,” Sitake said in the press release. “He knows the game, relates well to the players, and has done an outstanding job the past four years on our staff. We are excited to have him step into this role, and know he will excel in helping the young men in our program learn, grow and develop.”
Harvey Unga said he has joked with Sitake about how this is just the first step in his long-term plans.
“I always tell him that I hope he knows I’m coming for his seat,” Harvey Unga said. “That’s the long-term goal. I would love to have that opportunity who knows how many years down the road. For I’m going to try to master coaching this position and do the best that I can at it. Eventually I would like to diversify and coach other positions. After the position coach thing, jumping into the coordinator spot would be the next step to reach the long-term goals of being a head coach some day.”
The Unga family has been dealing with the same uncertainty and challenges as everyone else with regards to the efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. That made this announcement a welcome bright spot.
“It’s been really, really, really helpful and a breath of fresh air among all the stuff going on in the world,” Harvey Unga said. “It’s nice to just sit back and know something good has happened. I’m just super-grateful.”