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Sitake, Andersen happy after their surprising moves to Oregon State

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Kalani Sitake’s modest-sized office in the Valley Football Center looks like he moved in yesterday, even though it's been nearly two months since he unexpectedly left his comfortable job as the defensive coordinator at the University of Utah to take the same job at Oregon State.

The wooden shelves are all empty and the walls and whiteboards are bare. The only signs of life are a picture of his wife and three children behind the desk, a couple of papers on his desk, a computer screen and one book, about the “Civil War” rivalry between Oregon State and Oregon that sits on the front edge of his desk.

It’s been a whirlwind for Sitake since he was named as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for Oregon State on Dec. 23. He’s hardly had a chance to take a breath as he's gotten his family settled in Corvallis, worked on recruiting and tried to get a new defense installed.

Sitake made the move to Oregon State after a decade at Utah, where he was a respected and beloved coach. The change caught many Ute supporters off-guard. Why would Sitake leave his longtime home and a large extended family and go from a program coming off a 9-4 bowl-winning season to make what seems like, at best, a lateral move to a rebuilding Oregon State program?

The answer is simple — Gary Andersen.

Sitake’s loyalty to Andersen, along with a deep spiritual sense he has about following his feelings, trumped all the positive things he had going at Utah.

“I love it — I love working for Gary,’’ says Sitake, sitting behind his stark desk, wearing a bright orange T-shirt with “Oregon State Football” emblazoned across the front. “The main reason was the opportunity to work for Gary. I’ve always been close to Gary. It’s nothing against Utah. I had a really good job at Utah with really good people and really good players.’’

You hear similar stories from other Andersen assistants, most of whom have worked with him before. Of course, coaching at a Power-5 conference has something to do with a lot of the coaches relocating to this small town about the size of Logan on the west side of Oregon, but loyalty is a big factor for the assistant coaches.

Like Sitake, Ilaisa Tuiaki also made the move to Oregon State from Utah, where he coached the past three years under coach Kyle Whittingham. His roots with Andersen go back to being part of Andersen’s first recruiting class when he was the head football coach at Southern Utah in 2003.

“I’m loving it, I really am,’’ says Tuiaki, who is coaching the linebackers and whose office is a couple of doors down from Sitake’s. “Gary is like my coaching father. I played for him. I was in his first recruiting class and a graduate assistant for him at Utah. He gave me my first job at Utah State. When Gary called, it was an opportunity to be back with someone I respect very much.’’

Andersen’s head has been spinning since he shocked the college football world in December with his decision to leave Wisconsin. On the day we visited his office, which happened to be his 51st birthday (his staff serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” before he left), he had to go to Arizona to meet with some boosters.

Most people couldn’t understand why Andersen would leave a big-time program like Wisconsin, where he had won 19 games in two seasons, to go to Oregon State, which has to compete with the USCs, UCLAs and Stanfords of the world, not to mention national powerhouse Oregon, just 45 miles down the road.

“I don’t expect anybody to understand it,’’ Andersen told CBS Sports. “I don’t expect one person … to say, ‘I get it.’ But I get it.’’

One reason was that he wanted to get back out West, where he has spent most of his life. Andersen grew up in Salt Lake, went to Cottonwood High and played for Ricks College before coming to Utah as an offensive lineman. All of his subsequent college jobs were in the West before he went to Wisconsin from Utah State after the 2012 season.

But another factor was because of frustrations with Wisconsin’s strict admissions standards, which made it difficult to recruit. Although those admission standards aren’t as tough as schools such as Stanford and Northwestern, they were more difficult than Ohio State and Nebraska, two of Wisconsin’s Big Ten rivals.

“It’s been well-documented there were some kids I couldn’t get into school,’’ Andersen said. “That was highly frustrating to me. I think they did what they were supposed to do (academically) and still couldn’t get in. That was really hard to deal with.’’

Andersen didn’t blame Wisconsin for deceiving him and said he had a good relationship with Athletic Director Barry Alvarez and the players. But when Mike Riley abruptly left Oregon State in early December, Andersen jumped at the job.

When he got to Oregon State, which he didn’t even visit before taking the job by the way, Andersen immediately surrounded himself with coaches he had worked with before.

Wide receivers coach Brent Brennan is the only holdover coach from the Riley regime, and running backs coach Telly Lockette had played for Andersen more than 20 years ago at Idaho State.

Otherwise the other seven coaches, including Sitake and Tuiaki, had worked with Andersen as coaches before.

Defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a and offensive line coach T.J. Woods had held the same positions under Andersen at Wisconsin. Offensive coordinator Dave Baldwin had the same job at Utah State. Quarterbacks coach Kevin McGiven had been the quarterbacks coach at USU during Andersen’s first year. Defensive backs coach Derrick Odum had coached under Andersen at Utah.

None of those coaching changes was as surprising as Sitake’s move from Utah, where he had been defensive coordinator for the past six years, ever since he succeeded Andersen.

Besides the opportunity to work again with Andersen, who gave him his first full-time job at Southern Utah in 2003, Sitake said he came to his decision through “prayer and careful planning.”

“It just felt right,’’ he said. “I’ve always paid attention to those feelings and so far it’s been good. It’s the same feeling I had when I decided to go to BYU instead of Iowa, and the same feeling when I met my wife and got engaged. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, but it felt right for me, and I hope people can respect that.’’

Sitake realizes there were rumors about him being unhappy with not getting a new contract from Athletic Director Chris Hill or not feeling he had enough responsibility under head coach Kyle Whittingham. But he’s adamant it was nothing more than following his feelings and his desire to work for Andersen as he did in his first full-time job back in 2003 at Southern Utah.

“Not even close, it was nothing to do with anybody,’’ he said. “There was just a different opportunity, things change and things happen. This just felt good for me to be here. It was a tough decision because we had a lot of returning starters and a great fan base, coming off a great year, and we were ranked. I’ve had a great time with Kyle — it was just time for a change, nothing negative towards anyone.’’

Sitake is also a bit bothered by the perception that he “stole” recruits from Utah, since a couple of Ute commits ended up at Oregon State. He says he urged recruits to keep their commitments, but he says he can’t control what players want to do and what each coaching staff chooses to do.

“You could be cutthroat if you want, but I chose not to,’’ he said. “When I say I encouraged players to keep their commitment, I did that. Coach Whitt knows that. But there’s two factors I can’t control — what Utah decides to do with them and what the kid decides to do. It’s their life.

“If a young man tells me they want to change their commitment to us and we say no, do we let them go to South Florida or BYU or a different school? I can’t comment on everything Utah did with recruits. I know there are some guys I had recruited before that changed their mind. Whether they did or Utah did, someone did. It’s a kid’s life, it’s his decision.’’

Sitake gets excited talking about Utah sports and says he still follows the Jazz and Real Salt Lake and he is enthusiastic about the Utah basketball team’s chances of making a run in the NCAA tournament. He knows it will be interesting on Halloween night when his Beavers come to Rice-Eccles Stadium to play the Utes.

There’s been talk that Sitake, who is only 39, could return to Utah some day, perhaps even as the head coach. He quickly brushes off that notion.

“Anything’s possible. I didn’t think I’d be at Oregon State a few months ago,’’ he said. “I still wish Utah the best, still check in with the guys and keep in contact with a lot of them, try to help out as much as I can. I’ve always wanted to be around good people. I’ll always be interested in them and what they’re doing and wish the best for them in every game but one.’’

Of the 10 full-time coaches on the Oregon State football coaching staff, eight have strong ties to Utah among every major college program in the state.

GARY ANDERSEN, head coach — Played for Utah (1985-86), Utah assistant coach (1997-2002), Southern Utah head coach (2003), Utah defensive line coach (2004), Utah defensive coordinator (2005-08), Utah State head coach (2009-12)

KALANI SITAKE, defensive coordinator — Played for BYU (1994,97-2000) BYU graduate assistant (2002), Southern Utah assistant coach (2003-04), Utah assistant coach (2005-08), Utah defensive coordinator (2009-14).

ILAISA TUIAKI, linebackers coach — Played for Southern Utah (2003-04), Utah graduate assistant (2008), Utah State running backs coach (2009-11), Utah assistant coach (2012-14).

DERRICK ODUM, defensive backs coach — Played at Utah (1989-92), Utah State secondary coach (2000-02), Utah safeties coach (2005-07)

CHAD KAUHA’AHA’A, defensive line coach — Played at Utah (1993-96), Weber State defensive line coach (2005-08), Utah State defensive line coach (2009-10), Utah defensive line coach (2011-12).

DAVE BALDWIN, offensive coordinator — Utah State offensive coordinator (2009-11)

KEVIN MCGIVEN, quarterbacks coach — BYU graduate assistant (2002-04), Southern Utah offensive coordinator (2005), Weber State offensive coordinator (2006-08), Utah State quarterbacks coach (2009), Utah State offensive coordinator (2013-14)

T.J. WOODS, tight ends coach — Utah State assistant coach (2009-12)