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Sitake making transition from longtime assistant to head coach at BYU

Editor's note: First of a four-part series on BYU football coach Kalani Sitake.

PROVO — Of the last four head coaches to lead the BYU football program, three of them had never been a head coach prior to landing the job.

In that way, Kalani Sitake is like predecessors LaVell Edwards and Bronco Mendenhall — the two winningest coaches in BYU football history.

After spending 13 years as an assistant coach, Sitake has been adapting to his new role as head coach since his hiring in December.

“It’s different as a head coach because now you’re responsible for the whole team," Sitake said. "I feel like I had really good training and good mentors along the way. I was there with Kyle (Whittingham) from Day One when he became the head coach at Utah. I saw some of the things he was able to do. I’ve had great dialogue with him on things that he said he could have done better. I’ve seen Gary Andersen the same way, going to Utah State, Wisconsin and Oregon State. I’ve had those two guys to lean on. Then I have a guy that’s a rock, like LaVell Edwards, who was one of the first phone calls I made, one of the first ones I reached out to when I got the job. I talked to him a couple of days ago. I’m just picking his brain. Those three guys have been great for me in preparing me for this. Then I have a great staff and great support. It’s nothing new, but it’s fast.”

Sitake compares jumping from assistant coach to head coach to someone preparing for a mission and becoming a missionary.

“You know what you’re getting into when you go on a mission but you have to go through it to figure it out,” he said. “There’s nothing you can say to prepare someone for the Missionary Training Center, you just have to figure it out. As you go through knocking on your first door and being rejected, you know it’s going to happen. Then when it happens it’s, ‘Whoops, there it is.’ You recognize it and you move on. Some of the feelings are new even though the thoughts aren’t. I knew I was going to speak a bunch of times. I knew I was going to do all these things, try to lead and try to do a lot of stuff off the field. At the same time, I can still be myself and make it work with who I am. That’s one thing LaVell told me, to be myself. That’s what I’ve been doing.”

On his own staff, Sitake can lean on the experience of others who have been head coaches — Ed Lamb and Ty Detmer. Lamb is the former head coach at Southern Utah while Detmer was a head high school coach in Texas.

Including Sitake, eight coaches played at BYU and there’s a heavy Polynesian influence on the staff. Sitake is the first FBS head football coach of Tongan descent.

New wide receivers coach Ben Cahoon has an uncommon perspective on Sitake’s staff, having spent two seasons as an assistant under Bronco Mendenhall in 2011-12.

Cahoon declines to compare the two staffs, but he acknowledges that it feels different now.

“It’s been fun to see how much respect this group has in the community and how much influence they have, especially in the Polynesian community,” Cahoon said. “These guys are worshipped. And you add Ty Detmer to the mix. He’s a guy that’s legitimately worshipped everywhere he goes. We’ve had guys with sisters, uncles and grandparents that happen to show up when we recruit because they heard Ty Detmer was going to be there. They want pictures and hugs for 15 minutes. All of the sudden, the spotlight turns from the kid to Ty Detmer. It’s a challenge to turn the focus back on the kid and make him feel like you’re here for him. It’s been neat to see how effective these guys have been in a short amount of time. It’s going to be fun to see how well we do with a full year with a full staff.”

Since Sitake completed his staff in January, the new coaching staff has been working feverishly in preparation for the upcoming season.

“I feel at home at BYU and I love the staff and we are coming together and getting accustomed to each other, but you’re not going to be in coaching very long if you ever get too comfortable,” Cahoon said. “We have to work and get better and identify issues every single day and get answers and give answers to the guys. I’m loving it.”

EMAIL: jeffc@deseretnews.com