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BYU's Kalani Sitake continues to embrace role as Cougars' head coach, draw upon lessons from LaVell Edwards

PROVO — Perhaps nobody has had a better seat to witness BYU coach Kalani Sitake’s career arc than Aaron Roderick.

From 1997-98, Sitake and Roderick were teammates at BYU and then Roderick was a graduate assistant during Sitake’s final two seasons as a player with the Cougars. The two later reunited as assistant coaches at Southern Utah from 2003-04 before they both joined the Ute football staff, where they remained together for a decade.

Sitake became the Cougars’ head coach in December 2015, and he hired Roderick as BYU’s passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach prior to the 2018 season.

During those years, they’ve forged a close friendship.

When they were players, there was no way Roderick could have predicted or foreseen Sitake becoming the head coach at BYU, filling the same position of a man they both loved and admired — the legendary LaVell Edwards.

As Sitake enters his fourth season at the helm at BYU, Roderick can still remember when he started to believe it could happen.

“When he became a defensive coordinator (at Utah), that’s when I saw the leadership side of him take off. His ability to stand in front of a group of people and lead is pretty awesome,” Roderick said. “He’s such a genuine person. People want to win for him because they know he cares for them. He goes out of his way to help people. He’s an amazing guy. I pinch myself every day that I get to work for him. I’m really glad he trusted in me to have this job. I do my best every day to not let him down.”

A lot of people that surround Sitake in the BYU football offices feel the same way.

"He’s a great leader and a great human being. Every person in our building loves him. And they know that he genuinely loves them," Roderick said. "That motivates everyone to work hard for him. I want to win for him as much as anything. I think we all do.”

BYU's new head football coach Kalani Sitake talks briefly with former head coach LaVell Edwards, following a press conference in Provo, Utah, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. Sitake played for Edwards during his career.
BYU's new head football coach Kalani Sitake talks briefly with former head coach LaVell Edwards, following a press conference in Provo, Utah, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. Sitake played for Edwards during his career.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On the day Sitake (after spending a year as Oregon State's defensive coordinator) was introduced as BYU's new head coach three-and-a-half years ago, dozens of former Cougar players, and Edwards himself, attended the press conference. It was a literal and symbolic relinking of the program to the Edwards Era. Edwards put his stamp of approval on the hiring that day, calling it “a great choice.”

During his inaugural campaign, Sitake talked about his coaching style and referenced his mentor. He said he wanted to become the “Polynesian LaVell Edwards.”

But times have changed since Sitake was a fullback for the Cougars. BYU went independent in 2011, dramatically altering the dynamic of the program. The schedules got tougher. There are no conference championships to play for. And archrival Utah is a member of the Pac-12.

And no, the road representing the first three seasons of the Sitake Era hasn't always been smooth.

In his first year after replacing Bronco Mendenhall, Sitake guided the Cougars to a 9-4 season thanks, in large part, to seniors like Taysom Hill, Jamaal Williams and Kai Nacua.

BYU then suffered through a disastrous 4-9 campaign, prompting questions about the culture, and the future, of the program.

At a crossroads, Sitake made a difficult decision. He decided to shake up his coaching staff, including relieving one of the most beloved athletes in BYU history, and a Heisman Trophy winner, Ty Detmer, from his duties as offensive coordinator.

“Kalani came to me at the end of the year and said that he felt it was necessary to make a change,” athletic director Tom Holmoe once explained.

Many criticized the move, and the way it was handled, but Sitake proceeded in the best way he knew how. He replaced Detmer with Jeff Grimes, who, like Detmer, had never been an offensive coordinator at the college level before being hired by BYU.

After one season, it appears that move has paid off as Grimes infused life into an offense that was moribund in 2017. BYU posted a 7-6 record last fall and that progress provided large doses of hope for Cougar Nation going into the 2019 season.

During annual BYU Football Media Day festivities in mid-June, Sitake seemed at ease with his role and optimistic about the state of the program, saying he can’t wait to kick off the upcoming campaign. The Cougars have a chance to make a statement in front of a national television audience in their Aug. 29 opener when they host the Utes, a team BYU hasn't beaten in nearly a decade.

"What a great opportunity for us to see where we match up," Sitake said.

Sitake, who has compiled a 20-19 record in three seasons, has two years remaining on his contract. Some expected Holmoe to announce a contract extension for Sitake during media day. But it didn't happen.

Holmoe said in late January the contract situation is “not an issue” and “I know exactly where (Sitake) stands and he knows exactly where I stand.”

Though Holmoe didn’t attend media day, he assessed Sitake’s status as BYU’s head coach during a prerecorded interview.

“He’s doing a great job. When you bring in a new coach, the most important thing is the culture that they can create. Kalani has a very unique culture. He has this incredible ‘Aloha’ spirit that you can’t miss when you come around him,” Holmoe said. “He’s a football coach. He loves people. He loves his players. And he’s assembled a coaching staff right now where this relationship between the coaches and the players is strong.

“It’s taken a little while to get to that point. But he’s done well in the community, he’s done well on our campus, he does great in that locker room with that team. It takes some time to build that culture for it to be really strong. Now these football games (in 2019) will match up the intensity of the man. I expect great things from him.”

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake sings the fight song after beating the McNeese State Cowboys in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. BYU won 30-3.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake sings the fight song after beating the McNeese State Cowboys in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. BYU won 30-3.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

How has Sitake evolved as a head coach?

“Being a head coach is like any other position. You grow and learn and get better at your job each year,” Roderick said. “Kalani’s the same way. Each year you get better and apply lessons from the past. I see him becoming more and more comfortable in his role all of the time."

Though Sitake seems calm and confident entering his fourth year, with an arduous schedule on the horizon — which includes the September gauntlet of Utah, Tennessee, USC and Washington — there’s plenty of pressure on him for BYU to continue an upward trajectory.

When asked about what he’s learned as BYU's head coach, Sitake compared it to becoming a father in that there’s a steep learning curve.

“Some things you just have to go through. Even as familiar as I am with BYU and the way it is, I feel a lot more comfortable going into this season,” he said. “I still enjoy every second of it like I did when I first got the job. As far as my passion goes for BYU, it’s the same. I’m still excited to go to work every day and I’m honored that I have this position.”

Certainly, Sitake embraces the legacy that Edwards established at BYU. In 29 seasons at the helm, Edwards became one of the winningest coaches in college football history, put BYU football on the proverbial map, and helped revolutionize the way teams utilize the passing game. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004. Edwards retired in 2000, the same year Sitake finished his Cougar career.

During Sitake's first season as head coach, before Edwards died in December 2016, Sitake went to Edwards’ home in Provo every week to visit him.

Much of Sitake's coaching philosophy was shaped by Edwards, such as teaching players to enjoy the game and putting the game in perspective.

“I was taught that by LaVell Edwards. I saw him after every game, win or lose, leave the locker room the same,” Sitake said. “I saw him embrace his wife, Patti. I saw him get on the plane. What a great example he was to me as a person. I hope I can do that for our players.”

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake looks up at the scoreboard in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Hawaii, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake looks up at the scoreboard in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Hawaii, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
Eugene Tanner, AP

Some lessons Sitake has had to learn through trial and error. One of the reasons why Holmoe hired Sitake was his reputation as a recruiter. But recruiting at BYU is different than recruiting at Utah or Oregon State or anywhere else.

“I’ve been really up front with the whole recruiting aspect of how hard school is here. I don’t think I hit that hard enough earlier,” Sitake said. “It’s made some guys shy away from coming to school here but I also explain to them that getting a degree from BYU is such a great opportunity to learn so much. The emphasis has always been on the honor code and what we expect from them.

“There are certain recruits who don’t want to do that and I understand that. They don’t want to carry the burden — which I see as a blessing — of doing service and charity work. We do more of that than any other team in college football.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘Why do you do that? Why don’t you just play football?’ Because we’re BYU. That’s why. We’re different. We’re going to do service and help people and be in contact with our fans that need our help and uplift lives. That’s why we came here. Others may not want to do that. They just want to play football and not really focus on academics. Here, you have to do a lot of work. So I’m looking for the best.”

As part of his recruiting strategy, Sitake has asked for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to let him and his staff know about potential Latter-day Saint recruits all over the world. He calls those “member referrals” and he’s received several during his time at BYU.

Sitake, who served a Latter-day Saint mission to Oakland, California, promotes the missionary program whenever he gets the chance. About 65% of his players have served two-year missions.

Aside from that religious service opportunity, Sitake has continued the weekly tradition started at BYU by Mendenhall of inviting an individual or a family that is going through a difficult challenge to watch practice, meet the players and coaches and receive team gear. Under Mendenhall it was called “Thursday’s Heroes” and under Sitake it’s known as “True Blue Heroes.”

In late June, for the third consecutive year, Sitake and more than 30 members of the football program, including players, traveled to New York City to spend time with the Harlem Jets youth team as part of Sitake's nonprofit More2Life Foundation.

“Just showing these kids that someone thousands of miles away cares about their well-being and how they perform in school will make a huge difference,” the Harlem Jets’ official Twitter account tweeted.

Cougar defensive lineman Devin Kaufusi thanked Sitake via Twitter for the chance to serve in New York and called it a “life changing experience.”

Sitake’s connection to the Big Apple stems from Edwards, who served an 18-month mission to New York City with Patti the year after he retired at BYU. Edwards began a relationship with the Harlem Jets that Sitake has continued.

What has also continued is Sitake’s insatiable passion for BYU football.

“Before I was a football player or a football coach at BYU, I was a BYU fan. I’m so glad and honored to be a BYU fan,” he said. “With my experiences being here, I’ve loved every second of this job. I feel bad that I love it so much. The 10 years I spent at Utah, I loved every day being a coach.

“There’s something special about being at the place you grew up cheering for. Then you got to play and now you’re the head coach. I’m living a dream. I do really love this school and this program and BYU sports. I love interacting with the fans. I’m glad I can share their passion, being a fan myself.”

And going into his fourth season as head coach, Sitake keeps working to replicate some of the same success at BYU that Edwards enjoyed — both on and off the field.