The world around Kalani Sitake is swirling with anxiety. It’s the season opener, the rematch of a game whose ending was stunning to both sides. Can the Utes continue their domination of the Cougars? Can Sitake finally beat his former mentor? If he doesn’t, will his job be in jeopardy? Would a win bring the words “contract extension” to BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe’s lips?
There are so many ifs, so many storylines, so many questions to be answered, players and fans alike probably have lost sleep this week.
But then there is Sitake, a guy arguably with the most at stake in this game, acting like he doesn’t have a care in the world.
He lingers on the field, chats with those who want a few minutes of his time and shares a few laughs with media members.
Really, the only way to tell he might have been under much stress since he became BYU’s head coach in December of 2015 is by the gray hairs mostly hidden underneath his baseball cap.
But it’s his ever-present big smile that gets the most attention. It’s like the guy is preparing for a float down a lazy river or something, not preparing for a game that sets the stage for BYU’s season and could determine his own coaching fate.
“Truth is, I’m just having so much fun,” he says with a giggle. “I know it sounds crazy and a lot of people might not believe me, but I don’t feel pressure as a coach because it has always been fun to me. I love coaching and I’m always going to coach, so I don’t get nervous about it.”
A few minutes later, while he is still explaining his mindset, Sitake looks around while standing in LaVell Edwards Stadium and admits to some disbelief.
“I get to do this,” he said, extending his hands to acknowledge the world in which he is in charge.
Back in 2015, when he was hired to replace Bronco Mendenhall, Sitake spoke of the privilege it was to coach the Cougars.
He didn’t talk about the pressures of building the program back to elite status, and doing so as an independent while the other major teams in the state had the backing of a league.
For most, the feeling of fun might be replaced by a sense of urgency by now, since Sitake has yet to beat the Utes as the head coach.
Couple the 0-3 record against the Utes with the fact that Sitake has yet to receive an extension of the five-year contract he signed and one could expect the fun meter to be in decline. Not happening, he insisted. Don’t get him wrong, he wants to beat the Utes as much as anyone, and probably more than he is letting on, but he maintains he has a healthy perspective on the rivalry.
“It has always been a fun game, even when I was on the other side,” he said. “It was fun as a player and coaching both sides is fun. I don’t get nervous about it as much as I anticipate it, like Christmas.”
But reality could be the Grinch that steals his fun.
Because when you get down to it, whether a coach is having fun or not factors little into contract negotiations. But if Sitake is on any kind of hot seat, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe isn’t turning up the heat, and voiced his support for Sitake.
“Kalani is just starting to realize the benefits of the team culture he has been establishing over the first three years as BYU’s head coach,” he said. “I can see the development of our student athletes in many ways with Kalani as their coach.”
Tight end Matt Bushman said Sitake coaches how he talks. He prepares the team to succeed, but doesn’t let moments of fun be overshadowed.
“If we make a big play, he is one of the most excited on the sidelines,” Bushman said. “We know he has our backs if something happens.”
Even though he talks about making memories and enjoying the journey, Sitake doesn’t skirt the importance of the game.
He as much as anyone knows what the rivalry means.
While many might not give his team much of a chance, he likes the development he saw in camp and believes he has a good team on his hands, but he isn’t into making predictions or claims either.
“So many things could happen,” he said. “It’s an odd-shaped ball. But I try not to focus on the end result and focus on the process. I don’t want to cheat the experience by saying it has to be this way or that way. I want to have fun with it and look forward to the results, whatever they might be.”
Pinned down, the fun for Sitake is in working with the players, he said. He feels now, after getting his staff settled and a few recruiting classes behind him, he can focus on that area.
“There are moments when I stop and think, ‘Should I be having this much fun?’ ” he said. “I can’t believe this is my job. I have a lot of gratitude that comes with that and the situation I am in. I want to work my hardest and am very thankful to be here. It has improved my life so much, I want to keep going.”
Kalani Sitake’s career path
2016-present • BYU
2015 • Oregon State, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator
2012-14 • Utah, assistant head coach and defensive coordinator
2009-12 • Utah, Defensive coordinator and linebackers
2005-08 • Utah, Linebackers
Kalani Sitake’s record as BYU coach vs. Utah
2016 • L, 20-19
2017 • L, 19-13
2018 • L, 35-27