He was the obvious choice.
He was the most qualified candidate when BYU needed a new head football coach two years ago, but ….
At a unique place, at a quirky, religious school, he brought none of the so-called negatives and carried on and off the field all the perceived positives, all the needed requirements to lead BYU football, to make and keep it a winner … except for one.
Ken Niumatalolo ran the wrong kind of offense.
The love for and adherence to his religion, the spotless personal background, the potential recruiting benefits, the connections, as a member of the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, to a section of the Mormon population that had produced and still produces many, many great young football players, the rather remarkable winning at Navy, none of it mattered.
He ran the wrong kind of offense.
That was enough to keep him away. He knew it, and Tom Holmoe knew it. So, everyone did their little dance, went half-heartedly through the interviews, the motions, but nobody got serious because, well, Niumatalolo …
He ran the flexbone offense.
That was untenable, unacceptable in Provo.
Niumatalolo didn’t want a quarterback who could fire the ball all over the field. He wanted him to run the triple veer option.
Why is this important now?
With Sunday night’s dismissal of offensive coordinator Ty Detmer, in the heavy-dusty cloud of one of the worst offensive performances in the history of BYU football, a pro-style-passing attack that attacked nobody, the question must be asked: What kind of offense is acceptable to the Cougars?
What offense must a candidate favor in order to land the job?
Does he have to fit a certain mold? A passing mold? A LaVell Edwards mold? A mold from decades gone by? A mold that built BYU’s brand, that made it the model for subsequent college football passing attacks, that won a national championship, that forced the expansion of BYU’s stadium nearly 40 seasons ago?
The question swirls down to this: Which is more important … passing or winning?
If it could only be one or the other, which answer is more suitable to BYU fans?
It’s not as obvious as one might presume.
Fortunately for the Cougars, it doesn’t necessarily come down to an either-or.
But Kalani Sitake is faced with a decision that will be the most important of his coaching career. He must land an OC now who will make the most of the kinds of athletes BYU can successfully recruit. It’s even more immediate than that. He must land an OC who will make the most of the athletes already in the program.
Sitake cannot survive another season like this one.
He knows the passing tradition at the school, having been a part of it as a player. But when Sitake was the defensive coordinator at Utah, for some fairly successful teams, he favored a different offensive approach. He believed that program could recruit big, strong linemen, on offense and defense, and, from there, play controlled power football. He was not a disciple of risky, spread-the-field kinds of attacks that put his defense in disadvantageous positions.
Whether he feels the same about BYU, we’re about to find out.
Ty Detmer was a Tom Holmoe hire. Now, we’re going to see a Sitake hire. As it should be. It’s his career that’s at stake here. He should get the guy he wants.
But what should he want?
Mike Leach is running BYU’s old offense at Washington State, a program that faces not the same limitations BYU does, but limitations, nonetheless. Four- and five-star recruits are not burning up the road to Pullman. And he’s making it work. That offense ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in passing, having thrown for an average of 375 yards a game. The WSU Cougars also rank dead last in the league in running offense, the only team in the Pac-12 that rushes for under 100 yards — at a mere 71 a game.
That’s reminiscent what BYU’s Cougars used to do.
Former Utah offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, a coach who knows Sitake well, having worked with him so many years, points out that even with Leach’s passing success this season, with as talented a Washington State team as he’s had, he still could not get the Cougars to the league’s championship game.
“Having a system and sticking to it come hell or high water doesn’t work in college football because you have to adapt every year to who your personnel is and who your players are,” Roderick says. “To actually be a championship team, you have to adapt each year to who your roster is, who your strengths are and who your opponents are. So your style of play has to be a little bit flexible. Once you figure out what your style will be, you have to invest in that and be good at what you do. You’ve got to develop an identity and stick with it and grind it out.”
A quality offensive coordinator evaluates annually, Roderick says. He makes changes, matching schemes to players, not the other way around.
“Good coaches adapt,” he says. “That’s part of college football now.”
Guys like Leach and Niumatalolo are outliers. What they do works to a certain level for them.
But even BYU’s long-ago offensive brainiacs — Doug Scovil, Ted Tollner, Mike Holmgren and Norm Chow — morphed over time.
Whoever Sitake hires, then, doesn’t have to be a certain this or that. He doesn’t have to be a passing guru — coaches hate that word — or a run specialist. He doesn’t have to fit into any kind of specific form.
What he needs to be is … smart and motivational, getting the most out of the players he has, whatever their strengths or weaknesses from year to year. He must have the acumen and experience to evaluate and evolve — quickly.
Yeah, find and hire that guy.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.