In the ebb and flow of a college football season, it’s easy for open-minded opinion to ebb and flow along with it. I’m taking a chance writing this column now, what with so much time remaining in BYU’s season, so many weeks left when only guesses can float in the air regarding whether the Cougars will be seen as successes or as failures, or as something in-between.
But one thing is clear: Kalani Sitake is the right head coach for BYU.
That assessment is not universally held. Some disagree, or have serious doubts about its accuracy. Negative feedback about Sitake’s performance has rolled in from people who have forgotten more about football than I ever knew. Other extremely smart people intimately familiar with BYU football think, given the limitations with which he operates, both in resources committed to the program and policies enforced at the school, that Sitake is doing about as well as anyone could.
One of the latter is former BYU All-American and Indianapolis Colts linebacker Rob Morris, who was on the Cougars’ sideline during Saturday’s USC game and in the locker room after it. Following that experience, he said:
“I’m 100-percent convinced, I don’t think there’s a better person on the planet to coach that team moving forward. I think he’s the right guy. He gets the players, he’s a good ball coach.”
Sitake’s made some mistakes since taking over for Bronco Mendenhall, and he admits as much. Early on, he had some assistant coaches crammed onto his staff who were not his first choices. And he has rectified most of that.
He allowed discipline to wander off in his second season, when the Cougars finished 4-9. Since that time, he’s pulled in the reins, with BYU winning nine games and losing seven, including its 2-1 start this season, with a loss to Utah and consecutive wins over Tennessee and USC. And now, Washington, a team that crushed the Cougars a year ago after a promising start to that season, comes knocking, again.
Hold onto your shorts, things could — will — bump and skid in some games. The degree of difficulty baked into BYU’s schedule this season, and in most recent and future ones, has been/will be more severe than the schedules of the distant past, the easier schedules upon which Cougar football was built. Have you seen what BYU will face next year?
Try this: Utah, Michigan State, Arizona State, Minnesota, Utah State, Missouri, Houston, NIU, Boise State, San Diego State, North Alabama, Stanford.
There’s one layup in that mix, two or three midrange jumpers, and eight or nine bombs from deep.
Back to the present. Here’s my guess: BYU will exceed expectations in 2019. The Cougars will exceed my expectations, which were never that high to begin with, whispers from coaches and players that the team would be better than most people thought notwithstanding.
I figured they’d finish with seven wins, eight tops, but more than likely, seven. After those first four toughies, and then … Toledo, USF, Utah State and San Diego State on the road, and Boise State at home, that seemed common sensical. Wins over Liberty, Idaho State and UMass were automatics. The other four or five wins would come from where, exactly?
Already, the Cougars have the two from Tennessee, a marquee program with a bad team, and USC. The win over the Trojans was notable, memorable, but not extraordinary. It was an achievement for BYU, an outfit made up of a bunch of two- and three-stars, to beat SC, made up of four- and five-stars. The Cougars, who are not bereft of talent, were more organized, more together, more motivated, more spirited, better coached.
“It feels more like a family than it ever did when I played there,” Morris said.
What was witnessed at that game is the best evidence for Sitake’s retention and extension — next season is the last year of his deal, a year before which a decision must be made on his fate. No administrators should allow their head coach to barrel into the last season of his contract, leaving him a lame duck.
Those players gave everything they had for that USC win. They stayed with the game plan. They never panicked.
“It’s a tough and gritty team,” Morris said. “That’s how you beat teams with a little more depth.”
Sitake isn’t a perfect coach, but BYU isn’t a perfect football program. He’s a steady match for what the school is willing to do, what the overall endeavor is trying to accomplish.
“I’m super impressed with Kalani, the way he interacts with the players,” said Morris. “He’s got this passion and energy, but he’s got this calm storm brewing underneath. Watching how he celebrated with the players, how he commands their respect, but doesn’t force it on them. They respect him because they know he cares about them, they know what he brings to the table. I’ve played for some great coaches, but I would love to play for Kalani. I think that would be a blast.”
If the bottom drops out, he’ll be wrong. And I will be, too.
But given what Sitake has to work with, those limiting parameters and policies within which he must work, parameters and policies that aren’t necessarily his, facing such challenging schedules inside of independence, he is the man for the job. BYU should extend his contract, sooner rather than later. He will not win a national championship at BYU, but then … what salary would he have to be paid to do the impossible?
What’s possible, Sitake can deliver.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.