What pressure? BYU coach Kalani Sitake remains calm and comfortable despite mildly uncertain future

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Staff stay busy during BYU football media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.

Provo • By most accounts, the upcoming season is a huge one for BYU coach Kalani Sitake if he wants to keep his job as the leader of the Cougar football program.

Perhaps that’s why Sitake was decked out in a suit and tie at BYU’s annual Football Media Day on Tuesday. In a way, he’s all business this offseason, several players and assistant coaches said, as he approaches the second-to-last year of the five-year contract he signed when he replaced Bronco Mendenhall after the 2015 season.

Sitake appeared as comfortable in his Sunday attire as he is in his Saturday wardrobe when he gave countless print and radio interviews, made a couple television appearances, and virtually talked nonstop for about six hours.

Those who know him best say he’s as comfortable in his own skin as his mentor, LaVell Edwards, was when he directed the program years ago. If Sitake is unhappy that he hasn’t been extended yet, he’s not showing it outwardly, most say.

“Some people are trying to bring up this added pressure he’s supposed to be under,” said receivers coach Fesi Sitake, the head coach’s cousin. “He’s actually more loose than ever. And I say loose in the best way possible. He’s still all about balance, all about making sure we get our family time, making sure we are efficient when we are in the office. He is smiling more, he is laughing more. I think he’s just optimistic and positive about the season, as are all of us. And so I think that’s the only change I’ve seen. But it is for the better.”

Kalani Sitake’s friends and supporters were hoping that BYU would use the occasion to announce a contract extension for the coach, but it didn’t happen. Athletic director Tom Holmoe missed Media Day for the first time since BYU started having its own in 2011, due to family reasons.

Defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga said Sitake never talks about the future — his, or anybody else’s — when he addresses the team, unless it is about the Cougars’ opener against Utah. More on that later.

Sitake joked a lot Tuesday, often at his own expense, as he usually does. He’s the unusual coach who actually seems to enjoy media day.

“What I have learned about myself is that, before I was a football coach, or a football player, at BYU, I was a BYU fan,” he said. “And I am so glad and honored to still be a BYU fan. With my experiences being here, I have loved every second of this job. I feel bad that I love it so much.”

He even enjoyed a staff retreat in Idaho last week that included a seven-hour horseback ride. The outing built unity and helped the coaches clear their minds, he said. At least two assistant coaches — Jernaro Gilford and AJ Steward — rode horses for the first time. Sitake wants his helpers to enjoy their jobs as much as he does.

“I have always loved being a coach,” Sitake said. “The 10 years I spent at Utah, I loved every day there. But there is something special about being at the place you grew up cheering for, and now you are the head coach. I am living a dream. So that’s the thing I am learning more, is that I really do love this school, and love this program, and I love BYU sports.”

Asked about Sitake’s performance through three seasons, Holmoe said via a recorded message that “he’s doing a great job” and the program is in capable hands.

Both men said hardly a day goes by that they don’t think about the opener against the Utes on Aug. 29. Coaches and players alike said playing Utah first has increased the urgency in almost everything they do this offseason.

“I am feeding off the players’ energy,” Sitake said. “We knew after last year’s game what a missed opportunity we had. As hard to deal with as that was, I was pleased with how our players approached the bowl game. And how they prepped for it. I saw a really driven team, and a lot of passion for the next game. And they showed what they are capable of doing. And they have been on a roll since then. They have let that carry over into spring football and offseason conditioning.”

That said, Sitake knows the early-season schedule, which also includes USC, Washington and Tennessee, could be brutal if the Cougars aren’t ready for every team, and not just Utah.

“These guys are really excited that this opportunity to play Utah comes sooner that it would normally,” he said. “So, it is a really good team we are opening against. There is a lot of respect for Utah and what they’ve done. This is going to be one of the best Utah teams of all time. And so what a great opportunity for us to see where we match up.”