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Gordon Monson: A remarkable year it’s been for Kalani Sitake, Kyle Whittingham and Blake Anderson

The Cougars, Utes and Aggies all took different paths to success in 2021

From left, BYU's Kalani Sitake, Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Utah State's Blake Anderson all had successful 2021 campaigns.

With all the attention being paid to new hires among college football coaches in recent days, and how much money they’re being paid, we should compliment the coaches among the three FBS programs in the state of Utah, all of whom are having stellar years. (Weber State’s Jay Hill is a fine coach, too.)

Kyle Whittingham ($4-plus million), Blake Anderson ($1-plus million) and Kalani Sitake (somewhere between those two) are all worth the ridiculous amounts — in normal societal terms — they’re pulling down.

Combined, at this writing, they and their teams are 28-8, with two division titles, two league championship games to be played, and independent BYU sitting atop its own world with a high national ranking.

Which is stupid good, all things considered.

Starting with Sitake, only those looking through the bluest of hazes thought BYU could follow its 11-1 season with a 10-2 record. The Cougars lost some talent to the NFL, including the second pick in the draft in the form of quarterback Zach Wilson, and faced a schedule that in terms of overall oppositional talent demanded much more of the Cougars than what the 2020 slate put up.

That’s obvious.

Look at the program names, the outfits BYU beat, and that says it all. The Cougars were 5-0 against the Pac-12, 6-1 against P5 competition, and 4-1 against the rest.

It reveals not just the recruiting Sitake has done and the development of players once they’ve been in house, but also the coach’s mix of strategic, personal and organizational skills.

In college football, even as the head coach is highlighted, he cannot be given too much credit for the success that occurs. He’s the CEO. He’s the leader of his assistants, and everything they do, as well as the recruiting and growth of players and putting them in the right position, the right frame of mind, the right team orientation to get the most out of them.

That’s precisely what Sitake has done this season.

That’s what all of these coaches in Utah have done.

Take note of Whittingham and the challenges he stared down. A few weeks in, his team had lost to BYU and San Diego State and then had tragedy blowing straight into his mug. It takes a gifted man of resolution to bring an entire team together after losing one of its brothers to a gunshot, and, far less significantly, after having chosen the wrong quarterback as his starter, admitting that, and pressing forward.

Early on, Whittingham’s offense and defense were not what they should have been, for which you can blame him, but turning that discombobulation and disruption midstream is really hard to do. He did it.

And while at this moment we don’t know who will win — or will have won — Friday night’s Pac-12 championship game, it doesn’t matter. A conference championship would be a high mark for Whittingham, and a trip to the Rose Bowl fantastic for Utah football. But regardless of the outcome, for or against, it changes the job KW did this season not at all. The effort and focus and force it took for the veteran coach to steer his team from the negative to the positive is remarkable.

As for Blake Anderson at Utah State, a coach some readers may know less about, just glance at the numbers. The Aggies under different leadership last season, and now under Anderson’s guidance, transformed themselves from a one-win bunch to nine wins, heading into Saturday’s Mountain West title game.

But it wasn’t just the numbers. It was the way the Aggies thought, practiced, and played, the overall vibe in the program, which then, of course, was evidenced in the record. What a turnaround.

Anderson brought in a lot of transfers and blended them with the existing team and in that mix found success nobody predicted back before the season commenced, present company included.

At the end of last season, the Aggies were a mess. There was a mutiny up in Logan, with guys refusing to play and wanting to quit. The atmosphere was dark. Morale was horrible.

Anderson came in, blended and bucked everyone up, and even with the transfers, the talent was uncertain, at least on the whole. Some individual standouts were/are there, but just a few.

It’s unreal what Utah State achieved.

And the impression Anderson made.

The coach’s wife passed at Arkansas State. He moved to Logan, got settled, acclimated there, and was remarried just before this season’s start. He dove into his work and set an example and made a difference. Moreover, USU claims it is the only FBS school that has minority coaches at offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and lead strength-and-conditioning coach. Cool.

One last thing: When a New Mexico player got injured, breaking an ankle, in the Lobos’ game against the Aggies, Anderson, a former assistant in Albuquerque, ran onto the field and prayed over the young guy. Lobos coach Danny Gonzales said afterward, with emotion in his voice, “That’s what kind of man Blake Anderson is.”

Utah hit the trifecta with its coaches this time around.

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