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After 4-9 season, BYU football team focused on more winning, less hype

PROVO — During this year’s version of BYU’s annual Media Day festivities, there was a conspicuous dearth of hype.

That’s not a surprise, considering the Cougars are coming off an abysmal 4-9 season — their first nine-loss campaign since 1955 — and facing uncertainty at the quarterback position where several candidates with varying degrees of experience will compete for the starting job.

At this point, BYU would be thrilled just to get back to a bowl game. The Cougars’ streak of 12 consecutive postseason appearances was snapped last year.

Yes, there is a sense of urgency as BYU looks to recapture a winning season in 2018.

“We’re in an unusual area. We’re in a period right now of growth and development. You haven’t seen that too much in the decades of success,” athletic director Tom Holmoe said Friday at the BYU Broadcasting Building. “We’re in a spot right now where we need to win the games that we should win and come back and upset a few of the games that we’re maybe underdogs in. That’s kind of been the story of BYU football through decades.”

What did coach Kalani Sitake, who is entering his third season at the helm, take away from that losing season?

"It’s a been great learning experience, but I think I have learned enough, though,” he said. “I never want to do that again."

BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake talks with host Dave McCann during an interview on BYUTV during the BYU football media day in Provo on Friday, June 22, 2018.
BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake talks with host Dave McCann during an interview on BYUTV during the BYU football media day in Provo on Tuesday, May 22, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

"This past year wasn't my best year and it wasn't our best year as a team," said senior quarterback Tanner Mangum. "We weren't expecting that. We had higher expectations than that."

Sitake overhauled his offensive staff, including the hiring of first-year offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes, in hopes that his team will dramatically improve when it comes to moving the ball, scoring points and winning games.

“Right now, there’s some changes that are going on to bring (BYU football) back,” Holmoe said. “I like the kids and the coaches. It’s a good combination. It’s been a good offseason.”’

One of the challenges for the Cougars is they are staring at a gauntlet of a schedule that features road games against Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State and Utah. Three of those contests will be played in September.

“For us, we felt like it’s important to play the best teams,” Holmoe said. “I’ll try to balance (the schedule) out a little bit more but sometimes you don’t have those opportunities.”

Holmoe also addressed a number of issues facing the BYU football program, including its ESPN contract, which expires after the 2019 season. A year ago, ESPN announced it had exercised its option on the contract to extend broadcasting rights of Cougar home games by one year through 2019.

BYU signed an eight-year deal with ESPN when the Cougars went independent in 2011.

“We have continued talks with ESPN. We’ve been having informal talks for the past couple of years,” Holmoe said. “The formal talks will begin this year.”

Despite the Cougars’ struggles last season, Holmoe said the relationship with ESPN remains strong.

“ESPN has a longer range view of what BYU football is about,” he added.

Meanwhile, on the day that BYU declared its independence, it also announced a six-game series with Notre Dame. The deal called for six games between the Cougars and Fighting Irish between 2012 and 2020, with two games to be played in Provo.

To this point, the two teams have played only twice — in 2012 and 2013 — and both were at South Bend.

Notre Dame wide receiver Devaris Daniels heads towards the end zone after making a catch in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Notre Dame wide receiver Devaris Daniels heads towards the end zone after making a catch in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)
Joe Raymond

“There are some good discussions that are going on right now. Notre Dame always intended to do right by the contract. But there are a lot of changes at Notre Dame,” Holmoe explained. “They changed to a league, the ACC, for all of their teams except for football. That arrangement changed their football schedule dramatically. I wouldn’t say we’re exactly partners with Notre Dame — we’re both independents and we have a contract. Because of that agreement, we’re going to make things work.”

There has been talk about the Fighting Irish buying out the contract, but Holmoe is optimistic that more games will be played between the two schools.

“What we have working out right now is going to be better than a check,” he said.

For now, the Cougars' sights are on the immediate future. In the wake of a dismal season, Sitake is looking forward to playing games again.

“The season couldn’t come faster. We need time to get ready for it but, man, I just want it to get here. It was such a bad experience last year with the outcomes of the games. That’s not us,” he said. “I would have felt differently if we would have played to our ability. I understand the injuries are a part of it. But I didn’t feel like it was matching what our identity is. I feel much better with it. How it will play out, I have my expectations but I’m really excited to get there to see how it works.”