None visited more than former Irish assistant Brian Polian, who says he made 11 recruiting trips to Hawaii in a 15-month span. Te'o noticed. So did the United flight attendants. Says Polian, who is now at Texas A&M, "I kept getting the same crew, and they would say, 'Aloha, Coach, how we doing? Are we going to get the guy or what?'"
Te'o's official visit to South Bend was a disaster. He showed up for a late November weekend in jean shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt, sending the Irish staff scrambling to find him loaner jogging pants. It snowed 10 inches, Notre Dame lost to woeful Syracuse, and the Irish players got pelted with snowballs by fans. Te'o retreated inside at halftime, where he played Xbox with another recruit while occasionally glancing at the game. "It was horrible," he says, laughing.
Meanwhile Irish coaches invited a representative of the LDS church in neighboring Mishawaka to help Te'o feel at home. Still, Te'o was set to pick USC until his English teacher showed the movie Dead Poets Society in class. He related to one character who struggled to make a choice, which led Te'o to pray for clarity when the movie ended. In the next hour he had three interactions that persuaded him to switch to Notre Dame. First was a call from his dad about an e-mail from Notre Dame coaches; then there were two conversations, one with his coach, Kale Ane, and one with someone connected to Punahou's athletic department, about creating his own legacy at Notre Dame instead of becoming the next somebody at USC.
Te'o took all that serendipity as a sign from God, and now he's grateful for the outpouring of support from Notre Dame fans. "It means so much to me that people care about Manti and not necessarily number 5," he says. "If I leave any kind of legacy, it's that what's important to me is family and the memories and the relationships I've built with people."
Since this century started, things haven't gone well for Notre Dame football. The Irish have had more than twice as many coaches (five) as 10-win seasons (two). They have been heavily criticized for the George O'Leary résumé fiasco, the death of student videographer Declan Sullivan in a tower collapse and the allegations of sexual misconduct lodged against a player by a St. Mary's College student who committed suicide soon after.
Through all the firings and controversies, Notre Dame became less of a program. A place known for its tradition of excellence kept falling further into mediocrity. After the dismissal of coach Charlie Weis at the end of the 2009 season, Swarbrick took a group of football players to dinner to discuss the attributes they wanted in a new coach. Swarbrick will never forget what Te'o said: "I want someone who demands more out of us."
The AD found that quality in Brian Kelly, who had mastered the nuances of running a college team during successful stints at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Kelly says he inherited a Notre Dame program that had "air coming out of the tires in a lot of areas" and had been run more like a professional club. Players were going outside of Notre Dame's sports medicine program for surgery, eating on their own and going their separate ways off the field.
The coach has stressed fun, putting a pool table in the football facility and establishing a weekly Ping-Pong ball trick-shot competition, the winner of which is posted on YouTube. He instituted a training table for team meals. And he tapped into the school's traditions to provide motivation. "A lot of the collateral areas that make you a strong program had to be addressed before we even got to the players," Kelly says. "While we were bridging that, we had Manti Te'o, who saw it all. I remember his comment to me: 'It's fun to be part of a college football team.'"
Te'o has more than done his part in the locker room, embodying the Hawaiian traits of humility and family. He is delighted that his teammates now refer to each other as uce—Samoan slang for bro—and relish the meaning of the word. Te'o and Toma, his roommate and fellow Punahou alum, invite teammates over for dinners of Spam and eggs—"that is my weakness, Spam and Pam," Te'o says with a laugh—and host games of spades nearly every night. "There's just more of a closeness with this team," says Toma, one of the Irish's most reliable wide receivers. "We're actually having fun again."
Te'o's leadership by example reached a high point when he decided to forgo first-round NFL money and return to South Bend for his senior year. One presentation he sat through with his parents, Brian and Ottilia, showed that staying in school could cost Manti $4 million. Brian and Ottilia are both in education, and Manti is the oldest of their seven children. (One brother, Brian Jr., passed away at three months old.) "We had never seen that many commas before," Brian says.