Every now and then, CBS broadcaster Verne Lundquist might unintentionally stumble over the pronunciation of a player’s name. Well, the longtime voice of the SEC has a year head start on this one, and he’ll need the practice because he may be saying it a lot.
Verne, meet the mouthful that is Tuanigamanuolepola (Tua, pronounced Two-uh, for short) Tagovailoa (pronounced Tag-o-vy-low-uh).
Last weekend, the once-unlikely scenario of Tua, the nation’s No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, playing in the SEC took a big step toward becoming reality. He and his family made the more-than-4,000-mile trip from their home in Honolulu to visit three SEC schools — Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss.
Tagovailoa’s decision is no longer as cut-and-dried as it had seemed just days ago.
It was the recruit’s first time in the southern United States, yet somehow Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Oxford reminded him a little of home.
He couldn’t even name many differences except for, well, the obvious one.
“Really nothing, besides the ocean,” Tagovailoa said with a laugh. “If we’re looking at traits, there’s really no difference. Family and faith are a very big deal in Hawaii. I see that a lot over here, too.”
Tagovailoa, who threw for 2,916 yards and scored 35 total touchdowns last season, has publicly declared Southern California as his No. 1 school for over a year. After all, it’s the school the lefty says he’s dreamed of playing for.
His father, Galu (pronounced Na-loo), says Southern Cal is the school his family has loved, and the program that “has always been a part of our lives, and a part of our heart.”
Enter the SEC
After completing their SEC tour, the Tagovailoas experienced a new feeling, one that has suddenly made the recruitment of this top-two quarterback prospect much more interesting.
“Everything is equal at this moment,” Tagovailoa told SEC Country. “I say that because when I used to fly out to the mainland, those were the only two schools I would ever see — USC and UCLA. I haven’t gotten to see schools like these before. It was great.”
While visiting Alabama, Tagovailoa marveled at the Crimson Tide’s 16 national championship trophies. Auburn showed off its $13.9 million, mammoth video board that ranks as the largest in college football, and Tagovailoa stood next to the shrine of Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. At Ole Miss, Tagovailoa strolled through the Manning Center, named after two all-time Rebels quarterbacks who also happen to be two of the greatest signal callers in SEC history, Archie and Eli.
He gained the experience of how deeply college football is ingrained in all three communities, and how intensely fans identify with and support their teams.
“You see how much football really means down here to these people here, especially in the state of Alabama with Auburn and Alabama,” Tagovailoa said. “There’s not an NFL team in the state. Really, Alabama and Auburn are the two professional teams for the state.”
While Tagovailoa says none of his suitors holds an advantage at the moment, his father seems to have formulated his own favorite.
“Alabama was my personal favorite only because of our relationship and how we communicated with them,” he said. “Ole Miss was the first to offer Tua and we had that relationship with them out in Hawaii. I guess somewhere along the way, it broke off a bit. When we visited (last weekend), it got stronger. Then Auburn — we really didn’t have a relationship with them. But we felt like because we are visiting Alabama and Ole Miss, why not come out and visit them? Our relationship with them got better on this visit. Right now, we are kind of gauging toward Alabama only because of the relationships we have with (offensive coordinator) Lane Kiffin and (Coach) Nick Saban.
“That’s the family’s favorite, and mainly Tua’s right now.”
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— TuaTagovailoa (@Tuaamann_) April 12, 2016
The four-star prospect is planning on making a commitment to his school of choice this July, but if a decision was to be made today, his father thinks Alabama would have its quarterback in the Class of 2017.
“If it was made today, just with what has happened this week, it would be Alabama,” Galu said. “Again, because of the relationship we built with them. Our relationship with Alabama has kept growing. This is just my opinion but it would be Alabama.”
Of course, many prospects, and even their family members, make bold proclamations about the schools they just visited when emotions are running high after an exciting experience.
However, the Tagovailoa family appears to be quite serious about the prospect of their son leaving Hawaii for the faraway SEC.
Tua’s father and mother, Diane, told SEC Country that they’ve had conversations about potentially moving to, or at least near, whichever locale their son chooses.
“We have talked about a lot of those things, even if he was staying on the West Coast,” Galu Tagovailoa said. “I have kind of looked at some jobs on the West Coast in my field. We also needed to consider that we needed to look at jobs in Mobile or in that area. That was one of the biggest reasons why we took this trip as a family. When it comes down to making a decision like this, it’s a family decision.”
Diane came away impressed with all three schools. She believes the facilities at the SEC schools are superior to those she has visited in the Pac-12 (Southern Cal and Washington). She also believes Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss would all offer her son an excellent education.
Diane told her son one key piece of advice that may turn out to be something that shapes his recruitment from here on out.
“I was just sharing with him that if he didn’t have all of these (three SEC) offers and had just one, the SEC would be the one to go with,” Diane Tagovailoa said. “To me, you can’t go wrong choosing any of the SEC schools.”
All three coaches — Saban, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze — told Tagovailoa that he is the No. 1 quarterback they are pursuing for this year’s class.
As a dual-threat quarterback, Auburn’s spread offense, among the SEC schools, would figure to fit his passing and running skills best .
However, Tagovailoa says he isn’t looking for what might be most comfortable, or for what is most similar to the offense he operates at Saint Louis School in Honolulu.
“The West Coast schools have the fast-tempo offense,” Tagovailoa said. “They don’t really go under center. They don’t really mix things up. I want to go to a place where I’ll be able to see it all. I think the SEC is the best place for that.
While the family has discussed moving, it is obviously a major commitment, and perhaps not a practical one.
“I think if you’re a ball player and want to compete at the highest level, this (the SEC) is the next level to the NFL,” Galu Tagovailoa said. “That’s what he wants to do. If I had it my way, I would want him on the West Coast. It’s convenient and would be easier for my family.”
Making the trip from Hawaii to any SEC destination in the fall would cost the family thousands of dollars in plane tickets alone.
If Tagovailoa decides the SEC is where he wants to be, but his family decides moving isn’t in the cards, his mother said they won’t stop him from fulfilling his wish
“I would be perfectly fine with it because they play the games on TV,” Diane Tagovailoa said. “At the same token, we only get to do this once. He is the oldest of four children and we want to make sure we give him the most of his opportunities. To me, as a mother, I want to give him the ability to explore his options and you can’t get better than the SEC.”
Tua Tagovailoa isn’t the only quarterback prospect in the family. His younger brother, Taulia, who did not make the SEC trip, is a rising sophomore at Kapolei High School.
Tua is often compared to another Hawaiian quarterback, former Oregon star and current Tennessee Titans starter Marcus Mariota. Mariota also starred at Saint Louis School before going on to win the Heisman Trophy in 2015.
During his acceptance speech, Mariota made several references to the Polynesian culture in Hawaii that reflect how Tagovailoa lives his life — never forgetting his roots and setting an example for the younger generation.
“To Hawaii nei [beloved Hawaii], thank you for teaching me humility and respect,” Mariota said in 2015.
“To the Polynesian community,” Mariota’s speech continued, “I hope and pray that this is only the beginning. Young Poly athletes everywhere, you should take this as motivation, and dream big and strive for greatness.”
Prior to his trip through the SEC, Tagovailoa, like most players in Hawaii, had only been exposed to schools on the West Coast, and that fueled his natural love for the Trojans..
Now that he has stepped foot on SEC soil, and delved into SEC football culture, Tagovailoa is doing exactly what Mariota indirectly instructed him to do — dream big and strive for greatness.
All rankings are provided by the 247Sports composite unless otherwise noted.
Chris Kirschner covers Alabama football recruiting for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on who’s on their way to play in Bryant-Denny.