The failures of last football season had two major effects on BYU coach Kalani Sitake: They gave him a sharper edge and, more significantly, they taught him lessons about coaching he didn’t know he had to learn.
He knows now.
That reality was slammed over his head like a swinging tire iron by way of a 4-9 season, a season that saw his team outscored by nearly a hundred points, a season that embarrassed him and his program.
Sitake said he’s determined, even in the face of a difficult schedule, not to make the same mistakes, not to need remedial work across the same material in the seasons ahead, particularly the one currently barreling toward him. It’s too painful — for him, for his staff, for his players, for his school, for his fanbase.
And for his career.
“I was able to reflect on what I can do differently, do better, but it exposed some things that needed attention right away,” he said. “And it had me reflect on the first year and what could have been. … I really needed to do some things differently, as a leader and a coach.”
Foremost among those was and is developing a pressing attitude of priority and immediacy. At BYU, they may not get a bunch of 5- and 4-star recruits, football may not be life, but it’s pretty damned important, important to make the most of what they’ve got.
“There’s more urgency now,” Sitake said. “We’ve got to make sure there’s nothing that gets in the way of us being successful.”
There was a lot that got in the way in 2017, Sitake’s second season at the helm, a three-and-a-half month stretch that was a competitive disaster, signifying more than a few moments when ineptitude ran headlong into disorganization. Parts of Sitake’s coaching staff were not just mediocre, they were ill-equipped to handle the challenges created by that mediocrity. Answers were scarce. Discipline lagged. The locker room was a mess, not just figuratively, but literally. Cougar pride was left in shambles.
It was unexpected, considering BYU won nine games in Sitake’s first season. But under his aforementioned close review — he examined and questioned darn near everything — there were hints of cracks that required spackling, of deficiencies that needed fixing, of a mindset that needed not just to be rearranged, but changed.
Although Sitake would never come right out and blame his assistants, he would fire them. He did, adding six new coaches to his staff this offseason, including offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, a man who Sitake believes perfectly aligns with his personal view of what an OC, what an offense should be.
Sitake understands the usefulness of enlightened football, but the bedrock of any brand is power. And that’s a basic fundamental that eroded a year ago and demanded immediate improvement.
“Football is a tough game that needs to be owned at the line of scrimmage,” he said. “Coach Grimes fits exactly what we’re trying to get done here. Teams that win have to have some sense of power to them.”
Grimes is a smart, buzzard-tough coach who for much of his career has mentored offensive linemen. Sitake said Grimes wants his entire attack to adopt that rugged mentality: “The offense is going to be different. Some games we’ll throw the ball more, some games we’ll run the ball more. Whatever is going to give us the best chance to win.”
Translation: Sitake favors leather-faced power football, and that will be emphasized this season — on both sides of the ball.
Evidence of that came during spring practices, when the Cougars went live, something Sitake had never seen done before, allowing even his quarterbacks to absorb contact in drills.
“They learn lessons better when they get hit,” he said. “It was nerve-wracking for me as a coach. But I’m glad we did it.”
Sitake is such a pleasant, personable man, it might have been easy for his players to reflect that on the field, during practices and games. Too often, coaches relied on the maturity of those players to discipline themselves, and that didn’t quite work out in the desired manner.
When the new assistants arrived, Sitake sanctioned them to kick some ass-umptions, formerly held by players not steeled by proper encouragement. He turned his assistants loose and they administered a new kind of motivation.
“Nice to see that the level of expectation from the coaches is really high and they’re not going to lower it,” Sitake said. “They’ve tested the players quite a bit. They’ve made them feel uncomfortable. Which is what I need here. When you have a lot of discomfort, a lot of growth can come from that. We’re pushing our guys to the brink, mentally and physically. That should bode well for us.”
When asked specifically about quarterback Tanner Mangum’s difficulties last season, and why that happened the way it did, he answered candidly, saying:
“He didn’t compete for his job, that’s why. It was handed to him. It would have been healthy had he and Beau Hoge engaged in a good, smash-it-out, best-guy-wins competition. It works at every other position, why not at quarterback? I don’t think you should ever deem someone the winner until he earns it. Nothing against him. This is just what was given. There wasn’t a battle there. It’s my fault. I’m never going to go back to just appointing anyone.”
He added: “We have to toughen these guys up.”
Sitake has made another major adjustment. He’s altered the organization of his time, focusing more of it on an area he previously neglected:
“In the past, I’ve spent more time with the guys who have struggled, trying to get them back on the right track. I’ve decided it’s the leaders I need to be around. … My time needs to be spent differently, not so much on reform, but on moving forward with the guys who have bought in.”
Sitake acknowledged his new, sharper edge, saying, “I wish I could grow my goatee back, and just get really nasty.” Either way, he said he’s still … well, Kalani: “I’ve always been myself, a positive person.”
For those who now question his abilities, he made this proclamation: “I’ve been in situations before where there was some doubt, some struggles. I’ve grown from those moments. I don’t like being backed up against the wall, but I don’t mind it. It’s OK for people to underestimate our team. It’s OK, it’s a good position for us to be in. It’s fine for us to have to prove something, to play with a chip on our shoulder. I’m excited to do that.”
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.