Provo • Kalani Sitake’s wry nature resurfaced. That development may have said as much about the vibe of BYU’s football program as anything else that emerged Wednesday as the second phase of recruiting ended.
A couple of months after presiding over the Cougars’ first losing season in 13 years and having completed the biggest coaching staff overhaul in school history, Sitake joked about his undefined job description of working with the defense. How, exactly, will anyone recognize his influence in a game?
“If they’re a really good player, doing good things on defense,” Sitake said playfully, “then I probably coached them.”
Sitake will be judged by everything he does in 2018, especially the work of his six new assistant coaches, as the staff tries to dig its way out after a 4-9 season.
The two most fascinating college football projects in this state in what’s left of this decade will be Utah’s continuing quest (now in its eighth year) to win a Pac-12 South title and BYU’s rebuilding of a damaged brand.
“The only acceptable result for us at BYU is to be nationally relevant,” linebackers coach Ed Lamb said.
Wow. How far away are the Cougars? Lamb knows such a level never will be reflected in recruiting rankings that placed BYU in the low 80s, in the range of Nevada, Southern Mississippi and Georgia Southern. BYU’s only hope is to identify and develop players that eventually make an impact.
If any immediate help comes from this class, playmaking receivers Gunner Romney of Arizona and Brayden Cosper of Bingham High School will provide it. They’ll go and get the football, a skill that BYU’s offense lacked last season.
The fallout from that and other deficiencies was a program renovation unlike anything BYU has experienced. Five coaches lost their jobs, and just try compiling a more popular group of displaced people — the school’s Heisman Trophy winner (Ty Detmer), another beloved ex-Cougar (Reno Mahe), an offensive lineman’s father (Mike Empey), the Utah governor’s son-in-law (Ben Cahoon) and the Provo mayor’s husband (Steve Kaufusi). Another position was created when the NCAA added a 10th assistant.
The staff’s challenge is to restore the standards of BYU football, and soon. Gary Crowton went 12-1 then 5-7, 4-8 and 5-6 in the early 2000s. Sitake’s 9-4 then 4-9 start is a disturbing trend.
“People became accustomed to a certain style and a certain standard. We didn’t reach it last year,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said last month. “Changes definitely needed to be made. … There’s a number of reasons why the standard slipped, and those are the things we’ve been addressing.”
Staffing, notably the arrival of offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, is a big part of the strategy.
These guys collectively are breaking the traditional BYU hiring model. Some of them have Cougars ties, but they’re coming from diverse backgrounds at LSU, Utah, Weber State, Texas-San Antonio and Rice.
“They know their craft, and these are guys that knew they wanted to be coaches and got into it from the beginning,” Sitake said. “They went into places and took jobs that weren’t ideal for a lot of people. Like myself, I appreciate guys that just want to coach. Find your passion, find what you love and worry about the money later.”
That’s how Sitake once found himself at Eastern Arizona College, learning how to coach defensive backs after playing fullback at BYU. One of those Gila Monsters players in 2001 was Shaun Nua, a BYU alumnus who’s now Arizona State’s defensive line coach. As Nua observed, Sitake could have said, “This is where I have to start?”
Instead, Nua said, Sitake was willing to “strap his boots up and work from the bottom up.”
BYU’s program is at historical depths of its own. In Sitake’s third year on the job, his work is just beginning. He’ll get all kinds of credit for a turnaround, if it happens.