Kalani Sitake version 2.0 is expected to be better than the first.
The changes he’s made are subtle. Mixing up practice times during fall camp, switching players to different positions, building a sand pit for beach running on the practice field and moving defensive line coach Steve Kaufusi to work with linebackers are a few things off the cuff.
In his second season as BYU’s head coach, a few of Sitake’s methods may have evolved, but his core approach remains the same: credit others, show humility and gratitude all the time.
Does he feel better about BYU’s football program in year two?
“It was so brand new in year one, establishing our team, our culture and identity,” Sitake said. “Everything has gone more smooth in year two, but my job is to do things a little different so we can demand more of our players and coaches in year two than we did in year one.
“If we can’t do that in year two, then we aren’t going to improve enough. We need to change and keep looking at ways to put stress on our coaches and players. Last year we did our fall camp in the morning. This year we did it in the afternoon. Last year it was establishing our foundation, now it is changing things up, trying to be creative so we can get better every year.”
Standing in the sun late after a public scrimmage last Thursday, Sitake talked with reporters, then immediately turned to a line of fans, pumping hands, posing for pictures and signing autographs. The lines are long but his patience is deep. He stays until people pull him away and other staff and players are long gone and the final little kid has his moment.
On Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium during a fan affair, he did it again, the last in almost a dozen interactive press-the-flesh demonstrations by his team from coast to coast. He does it because he loves it. But he says it gives his staff and players tremendous energy and motivation — like most of us get with a dose of sugar.
“For me, nothing is new because our guys have prepared from the beginning. I’ve planned for this moment, I’ve prepared to build this culture and I’ve had pretty good people around me. I have Ed Lamb, who has been a head coach and can help me. A lot of the guys are brand new and didn’t have a lot of experience out there, so having Ed is huge for me.
“Having (Ilaisa) Tuiaki and Ty Detmer there with me has been very helpful. If I’ve learning anything, it is to trust my guys to do what we hired them to do. I’ve been really pleased with that.”
When people ask Sitake what he’s learned his first year as BYU’s head coach, one thing stands out — a sea of fan support from the Eastern Time Zone to the islands of the South Pacific, Europe Asia, Africa — you name the continent the solar eclipse will touch.
“We have great fans and I’m glad that we have them. I’m glad that we have the support we have,” said Sitake, apologizing to fans nearby that he had to do interviews.
“I’m glad we can lean into it. When we came into this thing we were just kind of blazing, trying to connect with our fans. You’d think it would be exhausting but it’s not. It is so much fun and it is so motivating for our players and our coaches.
“Most of our coaches have been here as players and we have become BYU fans ourselves, so we can relate to what fans are going through. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve never been around a program like this where we just want to win so much for the fans. And we want to win so much because of the support we’ve received.”
If you ask Sitake to break down any aspect of his program, he quickly pulls the same card out of the deck.
“It’s because assistant Ed Lamb did it.”
“Ty Detmer made it happen.”
“Ilaisa Tuiaki is a wonder worker.”
“I have great coaches, they do all the work. Credit the players.”
It goes on and on. A polished deflection-diversion technique.
The result is a very close team, one he says is like a family. His hope is that that bond will drive everyone to want to carve out victories for one another — it is personal.
It will be needed. BYU faces three ranked teams in September, one of the toughest starts to a season in school history with LSU, Utah and Wisconsin before a trip to SEC country with Mississippi State and home rematch with MWC favorite Boise State in October.
In his second year, Sitake is expected to reap dividends of his recruiting approach, a more broad, inclusive net with higher offer numbers.
Known as a successful recruiter, one thing that has stood out the first 20 months at BYU is the creation of word-of-mouth recruiting by players. An example is a recent success at East High School, a stone’s throw from rival Utah’s campus. There, Sitake’s staff has signed running back Ula Tolutau, tight end Joe Tukuafu, linebacker Christian Folau and lineman Merrill Taliauli. Some of those players had signed at other Division I programs out of high school.
“I don’t think I set out wanting to infiltrate a specific high school,” Sitake said. “To impact recruiting it is more about getting the right guys who will fit into our program. It just happened that we got some of those guys at East. There is something to be said about great football schools like East, Bingham and Timpview that have done well in the state of Utah. We need to connect with great players but everyone in the state is getting coached really well by great guys — it’s not that we have to go take over one school over another. It is a matter of getting the right guys. We only have 25 scholarships. We can’t go out and recruit the whole school. I think it is a by-product of us building relationships with these coaches and other people in the community, and it just works out that way.
Sitake doesn’t discount the power of players networking among themselves. If he can create that energy, more power to the effort.
“The best recruiters for us are our players. They are the ones who are in our program and loving it. People say I’m a great recruiter? We’ll, I get too much credit for it. We have a great program and school here and a great culture and tradition and something good going on.”
In the state’s class of 2019, BYU has secured commitments from four of the top 20 prospects, including linemen Chuck Alatini (Orem), Apu Ika (East), Brooks Maile (Pine View) and Blake Freeland (Herriman).
“It’s not like we can go and sign anybody we want,” said Sitake. “You have to communicate and get the right guys. I’m not into stars and I’m not into ratings, I’m more into if this is the right fit for us. It’s more important to get those who want to be here. Others want to go somewhere else, and that’s fine. We will get the right guys who fit this culture, fit our system and our team and then we’ll be successful for that.”
There’s no real story behind the big wide-brimmed straw hat Sitake wears during practice sessions, but metaphorically there may be a tag there that reflects much about the second-year head coach.
One day last week Sitake took the team into the Indoor Practice Facility for one of his sessions. And he wore the big hat under the giant steel roof.
There are reasons he dons the big lid. And they’re as simple as explaining the eclipse.
“If I wear a big hat, my head looks thinner. Second, I like the shade,” he said.
“And then when we went indoors, I was so used to wearing it, I totally forgot to take it off. You won’t see me wearing it during a game, I’ll be wearing a regular ball cap because the headphones really don’t fit on this. There’s not like a superstitious thing or anything, I wore it indoors by accident. I’m a guy who does things to be practical. I’m not a guy who wears sunglasses in the dark.”
Before Saturday’s season-opener against Portland State, like coaches everywhere, he’s as excited as a kid before Christmas with a stack of colorfully wrapped boxes. The anticipation is high, expectations unfiltered. There are no losses, no second guessing. While there’s pressure, he thrives on the adrenalin rush.
Is he having fun?
Does a bear love honey? Sitake was born to make a run at this stuff.
“I’m having a great time with these guys, just enjoying the moment.
“I’m a fan, I grew up being a fan. How can I not be having fun as the head coach at BYU? It’s great, and I’m loving every moment of it. I’m definitely not getting sick of it.”