BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki leaving program after seven years

The embattled DC came with head coach Kalani Sitake in 2016, steps away amid pressure to make a change.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki as BYU hosts East Carolina, NCAA football in Provo on Friday, Oct. 28, 2022.

One day after BYU finished its regular season, longtime defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki announced he is stepping down from his post and leaving the program.

It ended a tumultuous year where BYU’s defense was ranked near the bottom of the country in almost every statistical category. At one point, BYU allowed over 400 yards in four consecutive weeks as pressure mounted on head coach Kalani Sitake to make a change.

“What a great seven year run it’s been,” Tuiaki wrote in a social media post on Sunday afternoon. “It’s time to venture out and pursue a new challenge.”

Tuiaki came to BYU alongside Sitake back in 2016. He has been Sitake’s only defensive coordinator during his tenure.

Before that, Sitake’s and Tuiaki’s coaching careers closely followed one another. They worked together at the University of Utah for several seasons and at Oregon State before that. Back in 2003, Tuiaki was a player at Southern Utah while Sitake coached the fullbacks, tight ends and offensive line.

Their relationship was described to The Tribune as close to brothers, as Tuiaki lived with the Sitakes when he was in grade school. In his final statement as the defensive coordinator, Tuiaki referred to Sitake as “family.”

“One thing that I do know was that they were grounded in brotherhood,” said former Oregon State linebacker Bright Ugwoegbu, who played for both Sitake and Tuiaki in 2015. “Having each other’s back.”

This relationship is partly what made Tuiaki’s struggles this year so difficult internally. On the one hand, Tuiaki had built up trust and equity. On the other, BYU’s defense was failing to meet standards.

After BYU’s loss to Arkansas in October, though, it became clear that changes were going to be made at the end of the season. That day, BYU’s defense allowed 52 points and 644 yards of offense. It did not get a stop from the first quarter until the final minute of the game on a day that felt like a tipping point.

Immediately following the game, Sitake assumed play-calling duties from his embattled defensive coordinator and Tuiaki was reassigned to coach the defensive line. Sitake said in-season firings were off the table, but mentioned in recent weeks that he felt an “urgency” to make changes to his staff ahead BYU joining the Big 12 in 2023.

Tuiaki almost immediately accepted his new role. After getting in an argument with a fan as he walked off the field against Arkansas, he quickly apologized and said he would accept whatever Sitake decided for his future.

“When all of this is said and done, Kalani has a head coach’s record. I don’t,” Tuiaki said at the time. “So whatever he feels we need to do in order for us to be better, we’ve got to do it.

“We spoke after the game and I encouraged him … we need to do whatever your vision is, and I’ve got your back and we move forward and we roll. So if his vision is for me to clean toilets every single day and it’s going to make us win games, then you’ll see me in there giving my best efforts in whatever the smallest task is.”

Coming into the season, Tuiaki insisted he did not need to make any schematic adjustments to his defense from 2021 to 2022. Last year, BYU’s defense finished outside the top 50 in the country for the first time in Tuiaki’s tenure. But the coordinator said all that was needed was to change player’s positions rather than the overall structure.

At the time, he referenced his success moving around NFL player Sione Takitaki back in 2017 as a reason for why his gamble would work.

This year, though, the defense regressed even further. It finished 93rd in total yards allowed. As BYU brought 10 out of 11 starters back, the same issues of tackling, blown coverages and a lack of a run defense plagued the Cougars.

Sitake said that type of defensive effort would not cut it in the Big 12. He sympathized with fans as the calls for Tuiaki’s job grew.

“We know what is coming up in the future. We have got to get ourselves ready, and that is in a lot of different areas,” Sitake said. “Making sure we are sound, matching expectations our fans have of us. I have no problem with that. I am a fan myself too so I understand the frustration and concern from a lot of different angles.”

As the news broke, former players at BYU stated their support for Tuiaki. 49ers linebacker Fred Warner, who played for Tuiaki for multiple seasons, told The Tribune he is close with the coordinator.

“I haven’t talked to him about it yet, but great relationship,” Warner said. “That guy was huge for me back when I played. Best of wishes for him and whatever he’s got going next. A lot of love just for the entire organization.”

It is unclear still if Tuiaki will coach in BYU’s bowl game. The Cougars went 7-5 in the regular season.

“Thank you to all the players through the years that I’ve had a chance to coach and recruit to BYU,” Tuiaki said. “... I want you players to know that I gave you my best.”