Provo • One of the most oft-heard words in the sports lexicon these days is … culture, a favored noun that applies to both winning and losing. Teams, they say, either have to develop and maintain it or change it.
BYU had to change it.
The skeptic would suggest the best way to do that is to get better players.
But anybody who’s watched just a couple of minutes of Cougar football thus far this season has noticed a considerable shift in the way the team goes about its business, even with a similar bunch of athletes.
That shift is reflected not just in the results — a tight road win over Arizona, a home loss to Cal, and a rousing road victory over highly ranked Wisconsin — but in the team’s offensive and defensive structures and in its attitudes and overall demeanor, the way it carries itself. Which is to say, its … you-know-what.
As last season dragged on, the Cougars mucking through their own competitive death spiral to a soft, miserable 4-9 record, the coaches might have found some answers for and solutions to their problems, but by the time they did, it was too late.
That was then, this is now.
The changes BYU made have been vast and profound, though not particularly progressive or enlightened. If you didn’t know better, it would be easy to believe aliens had beamed the entire team onto some floating spacecraft and sent back replicants. The Alienation of the Cougars.
The real differences are less fantastic, but almost as effective.
Four months ago, Kalani Sitake shouted out what he had done and what he was going to do differently. Not only had he hired six new coaches, foremost among them offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, and ordered a whole new no-nonsense approach to work for his players, he put into words a fresh football philosophy that somehow had wandered away from the program.
“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.”
And then he added something more.
“We have to toughen these guys up.”
Wisconsin’s Badgers, punched in the mouth as they were, would confirm that that’s working.
It’s the kind of culture you would gain attaching bumpers on an auto assembly line or from moving sprinkler pipe on the north 40 or chucking heavy beams on the back of a flatbed, not at anyone’s cotillion.
On Monday, Sitake was asked again what is different this time around. His response made it seem as though his players had not just adopted a new way of thinking, a new way of working, but that they had joined the Marine Corps and now were part of the few and the proud.
“The culture of the team is taking form,” he said, going into full preachment/recruitment mode. “The players believe. We talked about developing a strong belief in what we’re doing and what we represent and how we play the game. And I’m really pleased with the way the guys are doing it. … They’re trying to use their strength to get them in a position to have success. We’re just trying to focus on our strengths, which is toughness.
“BYU is really hard. We’ve taken that approach with our players. This is going to be a tough place, but because it’s tough and it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not the right place for you. In recruiting, guys are going to have to come in here and live a different code of conduct than other places. Academics are really hard, and we’re going to require a lot from you on the football field. If that’s too difficult, we can’t take any prima donnas here. That’s OK. …
“We’re going to play the best guys, the guys who work hard, and get the right guys in this program. … BYU is going to be a four-, a five-year grind. But you’ll love your life. Speaking as a 42-year-old man, you’ll appreciate what you did here in that time. And it’s not that bad. We weren’t miserable when we were jumping around in [the Wisconsin] game. That’s the fun part. It’s going to be hard work. That’s what we’re going to hang our hat on now. Instead of being like the other schools, this is a difficult place. Only the best can survive here. That’s what it’s going to take. That’s our culture.”
Senior defensive end Corbin Kaufusi was asked specifically what has changed.
“Everything,” he said. “The biggest thing is our mentality. The culture of the team is completely different. Just accountability. Guys are taking it upon themselves that we have to do more. There were things the coaches could have done better last year, but for the players, we’ve got to take it on us to get into extra work and not be negative all the time. We can’t let things get us down. We’ve got to be positive and we need to work harder. … Football’s a tough sport. Everyone has toughness to a certain extent, but coming back from last season, it’s how can you translate that into your work ethic.”
Offensive lineman Austin Hoyt echoed his coach’s notion that the heart and soul of any good team emanates from the trenches, and that’s what is happening at BYU: “The culture of toughness and physicality starts with us, the big boys down there.”
The player who has been on the roster longer than any other, backup defensive back and holder Gavin Fowler, said: “Coach Sitake during the offseason wanted to change our culture, being physically and mentally tough, feeling like we can compete anywhere, no matter who it is, no matter where it is. Just believing in ourselves, that we’ve put in the work, that we deserve to be there, that we can compete with anyone.”
So the methodology is different, many of the assistant coaches are different, the mindset is different, the work ethic is different, the confidence is different, the attitude is different, and the results, they are different too.
The players are pretty much the same.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.