Expectations for BYU football are changing, Kalani Sitake says, and winning isn’t always enough

This weekend’s matchup with Notre Dame will provide another test and a chance to measure the Cougars’ growth.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates the win as the Utah State Aggies host Brigham Young University Cougars at Maverik Stadium Oct. 1, 2021. The Cougars attempt a second straight win for the Wagon Wheel, the trophy of the in-state rivalry, while the Aggies will try to recapture the trophy.

Growth can be painful. It is a learning curve. And usually, the bumps and bruises along the road manifest in unsuspecting moments.

This long weekend was one of those moments for BYU head coach Kalani Sitake. After a 38-26 win over Utah State, Sitake noticed the criticisms hurled at his program. Three straight weeks of underwhelming performances, and the same issues popping up, reached a boiling point.

Sitake’s first instinct may have been to get defensive. A win is a win, he said, and 4-1 is 4-1. But then he thought about it more.

“Listen, I know all the criticisms are coming and we get a lot of criticism,” Sitake said. “But that is the expectation we have. We have fans that love us and the media that covers us, and they have a certain standard because we have won a lot of games in the past few years.

“It is just not good enough to win anymore. For me it is, and for us we are really thankful for the wins. But you can tell from my language that I would like to see us play better.”

Sitake sounded like a coach grappling with expectations changing in real time. As the program moves to the Big 12, the standard in Provo is no longer skating by or seeking out wins over Wyoming and Utah State. While any win would have cut in 2017 — when BYU was 4-9 — the Cougars are elevating to a different standard now.

And with growth comes some discomfort.

“Sometimes as a program, we can get defensive,” Sitake continued. “As a head coach, I can get defensive, too, because you know your guys work really hard at it. But I don’t think it is a problem to have fans and certain people expect more from us. That’s OK.”

With Notre Dame coming up this week, Sitake will have another benchmark to measure his squad against — not just in terms of depth or skill, but also expectations.

Just take the two news conferences on Monday, one at Notre Dame and one at BYU, as an example.

While Sitake spent several minutes talking about coming to terms with the idea that winning isn’t enough some weeks, Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman was busy dissecting why the Irish’s win against North Carolina wasn’t good enough.

“There is a series or two in a half where we are letting people score,” Freeman said, getting down to the smaller details. “... Obviously the expectation is to be perfect and we can’t give up a touchdown.”

Notre Dame and BYU isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, but it offers an overarching example for BYU of where it wants to head as a program.

Notre Dame is a perennial power, and it knows the standard and expectations that come along with it.

And it knows that in order to beat good teams consistently — like the Cougars will need to do in the Big 12 — there will be heightened expectations.

The matchup with Notre Dame this Saturday will be a test of BYU’s skill and a big game for this season. But it is also offering a chance to evaluate the program as a whole, and Sitake said he’s ready for that challenge.

“I like that they expect us to win differently,” Sitake finished. “It is not a problem. I don’t mind meeting the expectations of our fans that are very high. I am good with it.”