The expression on Kalani Sitake’s face was mixed, like a melon sliced in half and then plopped back together slightly off-center.
He had the puffy, reset jaw of a man who had been repeatedly punched but now was ready, all-fired determined to counterattack. His eyes, though, signaled vulnerability and hurt, the kind of sad self-inflicted pain that emerges out of disappointment, out of an important task not well done.
And it was his job to fix it.
Now it is his job — all the way through 2023 — to go on fixing it, after the announcement on Monday of his contract extension.
In a statement that surprised nobody, Sitake said: “I love our players, coaches and fans and I’m excited about the future of BYU football.”
BYU deserves praise for doing the right thing here. Extending Sitake is the right move, and it’s the best move, too, for a complicated football program that due to an unusual environment in and around it must be guided by a coach who understands the far and short reaches of that peculiarity. Everything from Honor Code issues to church missions to quirks of the administration to surviving and — with any luck — thriving through an inflated independent schedule that offers many of the competitive challenges of a P5 league without the attendant financial benefits.
There’s a perspective at BYU that winning is important, outside of committing all of the resources that many of its opponents use to find success, not the least of which is amounts of money paid out to their coaching staffs and for recruiting budgets. Insignificant stuff like that.
BYU AT UMASS
When • Saturday, 10 a.m. MT
Live stream • FloFootball
Another example: It’s not out of the ordinary that BYU’s players cannot use their indoor practice facility because it is being used for other purposes, such as intramural soccer games. Try to picture Nick Saban’s reaction to being told his players can’t get onto Alabama’s football practice field because the school’s golf team is working on its short game.
Back to the job to be fixed and the look on Sitake’s face.
The aforementioned countenance came during an interview in the aftermath of the 2017 season, after BYU football tumbled off a cliff, cratering in a pit a thousand feet below, having lost nine of 13 games. That team lost more than just that, it lost its identity, its position, its discipline, its pride. And Sitake was the one at the helm, the one who lost control of his players.
Everything was a mess, from the execution on the field to the unkempt locker room, strewn with towels and clothing and junk. The Cougars lost that season to opponents such as East Carolina, Fresno State and UMass, ironically enough the team, one of the worst in the country, they face this Saturday in Amherst. The Cougars never crossed midfield against LSU. Their points scored versus points scored by opponents was in arrears, 321-222.
Sitake learned valuable lessons by plumbing the depths that miserable season, his second leading BYU, after gaining nine wins in 2016. He learned to make his players earn their privilege to play. He learned to demand more discipline, more self-mastery, more effort from them. He learned to spend more time with the players who bought into his coaching doctrines and less with fringe players who weren’t buying in. He got rid of certain assistants who had been ineffective and hired more qualified coaches.
KALANI SITAKE’S RECORD
2016 • 9-4
2017 • 4-9
2018 • 7-6
2019 • 6-4
No matter how many games his future teams won or lost, he would not abide a lack of focus and effort.
As a result, BYU bounced back, at least modestly, by finishing 7-6 last season, and this year could end up with eight regular-season victories and nine in total if they win the Hawaii Bowl, which is a whole lot better than most predicted for the Cougars.
There are those inside the program who say imperfections still exist, but that the foundation, like Sitake’s jaw, has been set again, ready now to succeed for seasons to come, in spite of the fact that next year’s schedule is nothing short of brutal. There are many young players — freshmen and sophomores — already in key roles for the team. The defense needs to improve and the offense has morphed from a stumbling, bumbling unit a couple of years ago to an aggressive attack that is willing to rely on the pass to move the ball.
Given the self-imposed limitations of the school, both religious and academic, Sitake has made headway to a decently bright future. There is nothing extraordinary on the horizon, Sitake is not a miracle man. He will not turn water into wine, and if he did, Honor Code officials would throw a hammer at his forehead for doing so.
But he is the right guy, smart and savvy, capable and generous, too, for a difficult job. Most of his assistants and players love and respect the dude, and are willing to put in the work for him, and for themselves. He earned his extension. Now, we’ll see if he can recruit a little better, motivate a little better, win a little more.
His expression remains every bit as resolute, but the sadness in his eyes is gone, replaced by something between steel and stubbornness. His melon is whole again. He has the look of a coach now who knows he’s doing a good job, and has every intention of doing it great.
Gordon Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.