With BYU in a skid, fans are starting to point fingers at coach Sitake, but Cougar players aren’t

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake.

After BYU dropped its third-straight contest at South Florida — and second disappointing loss against an opponent it was picked to beat — fans have taken to social media to unwind, try to figure out what’s going on with the Cougars and even vent about the coaching staff.

On the BYU Blue Crew, a Facebook group with 1,145 members, a poll was posted after the USF game asking followers what they believed the issue was: coaching; a mix of coaching and the level of talent of the players; or the level of talent. Of the 77 respondents, 54 (70%) voted for coaching.

On Sunday, a new poll was created. This time it asked who would be a good replacement for head coach Kalani Sitake should he be “dismissed from his football duties.” Sitake’s contract is set to expire after the 2020 season.

Sitake has taken accountability for the recent tough losses, putting all the blame on himself, but it seems fans want more. They want results.

Defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri must have seen and heard all the chatter over the weekend because he had a message for fans during Monday’s news conference:

“For any of you fans out there or anybody who’s not sure how we feel about him — that’s why we love Kalani. I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else. After I’ve kind of learned how he treats us, how he cares about us, how he’ll take the brunt of anything coming, but anything good that’s coming our way, he points it right at us. That’s how a loving father should act. That’s how a great coach acts, and it motivates me — I want to play for him. If I were to ever hear anything or anybody say anything [negative] about Kalani, it makes me really angry, because I feel a great loyalty to him, because of that aspect of how he treats us.”

Running back Lopini Katoa and linebacker Chaz Ah You had similar sentiments. They respect the level of accountability Sitake has taken upon himself, and it inspires them to do better.

Sitake provides a good example of not pointing fingers when something goes wrong, Katoa said, and instead teaches the players a lesson in how everyone can look at themselves and see what they can do personally to improve the team.

“When a coach steps up and takes the blame for the players, that shows a lot of love, a lot of humility, and as a player it makes you want to step your game up even more,” Ah You said. “His job, obviously he doesn’t have the extension right now, so his job is on the line. And for him to put himself under the bus like that and take the blame for the way that we’re playing, that shows a lot of love.”

Sitake said it’s hard for some people to understand, but he loves coaching football. If it were only about the good times, he said, then it wouldn’t be as fun.

Adversity and rough stretches, like the one the Cougars seem to be in, are what help teams grow. Sitake considers himself built on tough times, and it's been the same in his coaching career.

The four-year head coach is looking at his current challenge as a learning moment and a way to improve personally and as a coach.

But with the love he has for the players on his team, Sitake also tries to balance it with honesty and criticism. He provides direct feedback so the players can learn and grow, but understands players learn better when love and connection exist between them.

This rut also shouldn’t define the team, Sitake said. It’s how the Cougars will respond that people will remember most.

“These guys are great young men,” Sitake said. “I enjoy coaching them, love being around them, and they’re giving us everything they can give. It’s important that we, as coaches, do it back in return. So, if there’s more I can do as a head coach and a leader, then I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that they get the best out of me.”