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BYU football: The Education of Kalani Sitake

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BYU’s head coach just finished his fourth year of “higher learning”, now it’s time for him to grow.

USC v BYU Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

What a difference three years makes.

It was about this time in 2017 that BYU head coach Kalani Sitake took a small step into the national spotlight when he was invited to join ESPN’s MegaCast of the National Championship game between Alabama and Clemson. Having just come off a successful 2016 campaign where the Cougars went a respectable 9-4, this invite was a signal that Kalani was getting noticed for a job well-done.

Besides the two Goliath’s that were coaching in the game, this room represented some of the up-and-comers that proved to be worth their spot on TV.

Looking back at the coaches that were included in the room confirms the volatile nature of college football. Mike MacIntyre had just wrapped up a 10-win season with the Colorado Buffaloes, the first winning season for the program since 2005 and the first 10-win achievement since 2001. Steve Addazio capped a winning season at Boston College with a nice bowl win and seemed to be building momentum in Chestnut Hill. Both coaches have since been fired despite the relatively recent success.

To the casual observer, this “coaches film room” telecast wasn’t must-watch TV. The game itself between two of college football behemoths provided enough entertainment for a Monday night in January. But looking back, there were certain dynamics in the room that portend the future of the coaches.

All of the coaches were perfectly affable, as one might expect from someone that is required to act more like a CEO than a coach. With all of the commitments outside of actually directing a football program, head coaches are expected to carry themselves in a variety of demeanors, depending if the audience is the board of trustees or a 17-year-old recruit. All of these men could present some sort of likability on TV because it’s part of the job.

The more curious observation of this broadcast was seeing how the coaches shared their insights.

The ESPN host, Brian Griese, did his best to guide a discussion and direct specific questions to certain coaches based on their background. Dino Babers would get question about a specific offensive scheme while NC State’s Dave Doeren was asked about blitz packages. There was one coach that was particularly chatty, and that was Baylor’s recent hire Matt Rhule.

It didn’t matter the situation or if another coach was mid-thought, if Rhule noticed something that was happening on screen he was quick to point it out. After one half of football it was almost annoying. For those who tuned in to hear more from their coach were frustrated because Rhule kept yammering on about a very specific pass coverage that Alabama would only use on second down or how a pulling offensive lineman corrected his route to lead the way on a run.

But even if his eager chatter was frustrating, Rhule didn’t come off as a pompous know-it-all. He was just excited to talk about the X’s and O’s.

Maybe it’s mere coincidence that of all the coaches in that room it was Rhule who has dramatically increased his coaching stock over the last three years. After his 10-win season at Temple in 2016, he took over at Baylor, which probably was the very worst landing spot for any coach in the country considering the mess that was left there. After starting with a rock-bottom 1-11 record in 2017, he surged ahead in 2018 going 7-6 and then turned a very surprising 11-3 mark in 2019.

In that same time it took Rhule to go from moderate G5 success to head coach of the Carolina Panthers, Sitake has puttered along with a valley to go with every peak in his time at BYU. After his stellar 2016 debut BYU crashed hard in 2017, recovered in 2018 and saw mixed results in 2019. If not for a pair of overtime wins, there’s a good chance he doesn’t get the contract extension that was confirmed mid-season.

After the second consecutive 7-6 season, many are left wondering if Kalani is the right person to lead the program into the next decade. A look back at the circumstances in which he was hired provide more insight to what has transpired the last four years.

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BYU will forever be one of the hardest places to coach football — not because of its lack of conference affiliation, but thanks to expectations that are significantly higher than the financial commitment required to compete at the highest levels of modern college football. Not being in a P5 conference does put BYU at a monetary disadvantage but fans still expect them to compete at a P5 level. The powers that be committed to invest more in coaching after the 2017 season when the offensive staff made up of former players that lacked credentials were excused for a fresh lineup of coaches. In an era where sharp assistant and position coaches are vital to program success, you can’t have champagne taste on a boxed wine budget.

Even with a new offensive staff that brought more experience, there was still a lot of learning on the job. Jeff Grimes was hired based on his decades of coaching offensive linemen and the hope was he would develop into a competent coordinator. He didn’t have experience calling plays but BYU was hopeful that his long tenure would produce the goods. While the results have been much better than the debacle of 2017, the approval rating of Grimes has been a mixed bag.

This wasn’t the first time BYU employed an optimistic “learn on the job” philosophy. For all of the expectations that come along with being the head coach in Provo, it almost wasn’t fair for Sitake to get the head coaching job when it was offered.

When Kalani was hired, he had just finished his first season as Oregon State’s defensive coordinator. It was a rough year for the Beavers, who went 2-10, and under Sitake’s watch they gave up 40+ points in eight of their games. The pair of wins that season came against one FCS opponent, Weber State, and one barely-FBS opponent, San Jose State. Given more time in Corvallis, it’s likely Kalani could have turned things around on defense but that first season didn’t exactly have other programs knocking on his door.

If you remove the outlier at Oregon State in 2015, Sitake had a strong resume that consisted of six quality seasons as Utah’s defensive coordinator. As BYU fans well know, Kalani was able to help build a stingy defense that helped the Utes transition from the Mountain West to the Pac-12. If BYU was looking for evidence that Kalani was the right man for the job, it was found in those years in Salt Lake City.

But were those defensive units built in Utah thanks to his expertise? Or was he getting credit for a unit that his boss, the defensive-minded Kyle Whittingham, gave his utmost attention? Since Kalani’s departure from Utah, there hasn’t been much of a drop off. Since 2017, Morgan Scalley has been at the helm, himself a rising prospect on the coaching market and now seemingly locked in as coach-in-waiting. Utah has shuffled through offensive coordinators but it seems like the defense, no matter who is charge, will always be its strength.

Without the window dressing, at the close of 2015, Kalani was a seasoned defensive coordinator who probably benefited greatly from working under a great defensive-minded head coach and only had one season to prove otherwise. He certainly looked like someone who could one day take over in Provo but was probably a few years short being a bonafide candidate.

Unfortunately the head coaching position at BYU opened up before Kalani was ready to hit the ground running. Yes, 2016 was one of the best BYU teams of the last decade, but the dramatic fallout of 2017 and uneven performances in 2018-19 give us the larger sample size of what BYU football looks like under Sitake. This last season was equal parts exciting (USC) and frustrating (Toledo) with a sprinkle of hope (Boise State) and a few layers of disappointment (San Diego State and Hawaii).

Can we point the finger of blame to athletic director Tom Holmoe for bringing on a coach that wasn’t ready for spotlight in Provo? You can’t fault him for thinking that hiring someone without head coaching experience would be a success, as it worked out just fine in the case of LaVell Edwards and Bronco Mendenhall. But both of those guys had worked at BYU for multiple years and knew what they would be getting into. For all of his love for the program, Kalani didn’t have the exposure to BYU’s challenges in the same way that Bronco did when he took over. He also didn’t have the softer schedule that was handed to his predecessors.

To his credit, Holmoe made an effort to bring in an experienced coach in Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo. His interview with BYU was highly publicized (and scrutinized, specifically by those who didn’t approve of his option attack) but for various reasons the two sides didn’t come to terms. Niumatalolo’s experience and success certainly would have qualified him but reasons that can be speculated on CougarBoard kept him from coming to Provo.

That left BYU with limited options, specifically with their requirement that the head coach be an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jay Hill has built Weber State into an unlikely FCS power but, back in 2015, he was still building the foundation for what was to come. Just like Kalani, it probably wasn’t his time either. What about some of the other options? Some suggested Robert Anae but his demeanor didn’t seem fitting of a head coach. The name of Stanford defensive coordinator Lance Anderson was thrown around but who knows if he was ever really interested. Considering the very small pool they had to choose from, it was clear that Kalani was the right choice. Quite possibly their only choice, but the right choice nonetheless.

Now, four years into his tenure, it’s clear that 2016-19 served as the on-the-job education of Kalani Sitake. The experience he lacked before he came to BYU, he’s gained through wins, losses and everything in between. From the high of beating Wisconsin on the road to the low of losing to UMass at home, there have been plenty of learning opportunities. There is evidence that the BYU coach will lead this team to greater success but there are just as many instances that make you question if he can. Four years ago he might have been able to pass off some of the in-game blunders we’ve seen recently as rookie mistakes but now, that won’t fly.

Similar to the experience of college students, after four years, he’s had his time the learn the ropes. And just like those who have graduated from college, even with their education secured and their diploma in hand, there is no guaranteed success. Just because he’s had a lot of good opportunities to grow doesn’t mean that success is right around the corner for BYU. He’s in a better position to do so but, at this point, it’s up to him.

It’s up to Kalani to understand BYU’s shortcomings as a program and figure out ways overcome them. It’s up to Kalani to instill a sense of discipline and competition that will hold players accountable for each other on and off the field. It’s up to Kalani to employ tactical advantages that can be deployed against teams with physical advantages. It’s up to Kalani to make he doesn’t get out-coached by teams with inferior rosters.

After four years, Kalani has been fully educated. Now it’s time for him to show everyone he’s more than just a really nice guy that loves BYU with his whole heart.