PROVO — It took a few circles around the campfire for Kalani Sitake to learn what Bronco Mendenhall meant when he titled his book “Running into the Wind,” a 380-page chronicle of coaching at BYU, mixed with behavioral science. It was a label metaphorically depicting the challenges of managing and leading BYU’s football program in the millennial age.
Sitake, the happy-go-lucky, laid-back players coach began to morph after last year’s four-win season. He recognized his approach, his style, his comfort zone as a leader had to change. This was not the same BYU he attended and played for under LaVell Edwards, and his team’s culture in 2017 wasn’t the same as 2018 because of it.
People made fun of Mendenhall acting like a mission president at BYU. Sitake is finding that is part of the territory to make things click. Mendenhall is in Charlottesville enjoying just being a football coach and tweaking a few things in players' lives. Sitake is finding that players' lives are his life.
It continued this past week when Sitake singled out different groups in his program and met with them separately to discuss a specific agenda tailored directly for them. One group was his coaching staff. Another consisted of players who’d served church missions. A third was a group who were not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
He challenged former missionaries to dedicate themselves to keeping their covenants, not in a preachy way, but as a business formula for success as football players. He told players who were not members that they signed up to do hard things, and reminded them the hard things would yield big returns in their lives.
He made one thing very clear the past 12 months: He will give second chances, but will not go down a long road with serial honor-code breakers.
As one who is very familiar with the usual coaching life of sleeping in offices and working 20-hour days, Sitake told his staff that just because other programs did that, it didn't mean it was right or productive. He told them he wanted them to get eight hours of sleep, take care of loved ones and come to work with energy and passion, and no regrets. Mendenhall did the same.
All of this is familiar if you study Mendenhall and his approach to coaching football at BYU.
As Sitake prepares a freshmen-laden team for a bowl game, a look at how he rattles the saber is more and more in line with the man he replaced. But, where Mendenhall burned old uniforms, demanded exhaustive hiking challenges, handed out coin tokens and liked to make analogies and comparisons to battles and wars, Sitake’s personality is much different. He’s a people person. That’s his coin.
One thing Sitake will definitely do differently than Mendenhall is use every bowl practice allowed.
Sitake, say insiders, is diving into his relationship building with players who have invested in him, chosen BYU’s program, agreed to do hard things. As the final year of his contract approaches, he is leveraging his biggest asset that can affect change, his influence on his staff and players. He is making it personal.
Like Mendenhall, who saw early on that BYU lacked certain skills and depth of a University of Utah, Sitake began looking for more innovation in the last two years. He knows he cannot do things like everybody else.
Sitake believes his players must lift every day. They need greater strength and size to compete. He will not abandon lift time for more reps.
This season, for the most part, that approach seemed to work. His linemen battled hard at Wisconsin and won, and did so for three quarters at Utah before depth issues became a challenge.
Like Mendenhall did in reinventing approaches, Sitake puts his team through more team practices, some against the scout team and some against the ones or twos. The periods for this are longer than those done by other programs.
The other periods, which consist of drills and teaching, are picked up at another time. He believes the team can get better by actually playing the game.
The 2018 season will be remembered for getting two or three more wins, an upset of Wisconsin in Madison, should-have-been victories over Northern Illinois, Boise State and Utah.
It is a season of six wins at this point but could have been seven or eight with a little imagination, better execution and decision-making.
This will be a season where many are still questioning play calls, time management and conservative approaches late in the Boise State and Utah games.
Sitake will have to live with that. His plan, as explained this week, is to bear down and learn and hold everyone accountable, starting with himself.
And he’s making it personal.