PROVO — With the aid of a cane, BYU’s 85-year-old living coaching legend, LaVell Edwards, slowly entered the BYU Broadcasting Building Monday afternoon.
His mere presence — as well as that of dozens of former Cougar players representing the past few decades that filled a studio for a press conference during which athletic director Tom Holmoe introduced Kalani Sitake as BYU's new head coach — spoke volumes even before anybody said anything.
Sitake’s hiring at BYU, announced last Saturday, relinks the football program to the Edwards era, which spanned 29 seasons. Sitake played for Edwards and his final game as a Cougar was Edwards’ final game as coach — a dramatic victory over archrival Utah in 2000.
Even after spending a decade as an assistant coach with the Utes, Sitake’s heart never strayed far from BYU. Monday, he emphasized how happy he is to return home and how passionate he is about his alma mater.
“I’m proud to be part of this family. I’ve never left,” said Sitake. “I’ve always been part of BYU. I’ve always bled blue.”
Kalani Sitake is a BYU guy. An Edwards guy.
“Coach Edwards has been a huge influence in my life,” he said. “I’m very thankful to LaVell and all he’s done for me.”
While Edwards has coached many players who have gone on to become coaches at the highest levels of football, Sitake is the first of his former players to take the helm of BYU’s program.
“I think it’s very special,” Edwards said of Sitake’s hiring. “It really is, especially a guy like Kalani. He’s just a great choice.”
Calling it “a momentous occasion,” Holmoe said he was thrilled to bring aboard a coach “that has been a player in this program, that understands and knows BYU football. It’s been an incredible experience today to see the boys back, so many players to welcome back Kalani and bring that BYU football pride.”
When he was 8 years old, Sitake said, he wanted to be BYU’s coach and he grew up watching games, learning about the players and even criticizing coaching decisions like any fan would.
As he fielded questions from the media Monday, Sitake, who is the first FBS head coach of Tongan descent, frequently referenced his time at BYU, both as a player (1994, 1997-2000) and as a graduate assistant (2002), explaining that he wants to “embrace the past that I know and embrace the current.”
When asked about what he is telling recruits right now, Sitake, a renowned recruiter, said: “BYU is a special place. When I look at a young man in his eyes and I look at his family and parents, I can tell them that I’m living proof that this is a special place. There are a lot of young men who come here and it changes their lives. I’m going to build on that. It’s a special place and it’s unique. I played here, I lived this life, I met my beautiful wife here. I made great friends here, who became my brothers."
Sitake said he wants to blend the best from what he experienced during his time at BYU and the best of what his predecessor, Bronco Mendenhall, brought to the program.
“The experiences I had as a young man here at BYU under coach Edwards, the culture we had then, the brotherhood and the family atmosphere, that’s what I want to build on and embrace what coach Mendenhall and his staff has done,” Sitake said. “I want to embrace all of BYU. Everything. It’s not about the old school. I want to be old school and I also want to be current. If we’re all BYU, that’s all that matters.”
Together, Holmoe and Sitake have discussed the direction they want the program to go.
“He’s got great ideas. They’re different than the way we’ve done things in the past,” Holmoe said. “This is a new era in BYU football. It’s the dawning of a new day. There are things in this program that will remain the same. Some things will be a common thread from LaVell all the way to Kalani. We’re not going to throw out everything else and start over. There’s some richness in this program. We’re going to keep that and add to it.”
While there was no news Monday about who will be joining the program as assistant coaches, Sitake described the kind of staff he's trying to assemble.
“We’re going to have a staff that’s going to be able to recruit and aligned with myself and Tom, how we think what is best for these players,” he said. “I can’t give you names, but we’re working on establishing a staff right now. I’m looking forward to getting the right guys who know exactly what we’re about here at BYU.”
Sitake said he wants to put together his staff “as soon as possible."
And Sitake was clear of what he wants the identity of BYU football to be.
“(On offense) we’re going to be a balanced team. We’re going to run the ball and throw the ball and try not to punt so much,” he said. “On defense, we’ll be aggressive. That’s what we’re going to hang our hat on. We need to establish the line of scrimmage and own the trenches. That’s what we’re going to try to do as we piece together our identity. We want to be balanced on offense and aggressive on defense.”
Former BYU linebacker Bryan Kehl, who played under Mendenhall, believes Sitake will be successful as a head coach.
“It’s because he’s from the LaVell (coaching) tree,” he said. “It’s about surrounding himself with good people. I think he’ll do that. BYU is always going to attract certain players. But he can get guys that we haven’t gotten before. That will make a difference.”
Holmoe acknowledged that it won’t be easy for Sitake, who has never been a head coach. No, it won’t be easy, particularly with what might be the toughest schedule in school history looming next fall.
“There will be some hills and valleys,” Holmoe said. “He and his staff, me and my staff, and all of Cougar Nation, will lift him up. These brothers will be here for him. They’re already buoying him up.”
“I’m not doing it by myself,” Sitake said.
Before taking the BYU job, Sitake consulted with Edwards. What advice did Edwards offer his former player?
“My whole thing was, ‘You have to be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. If it works, fine, you’re the right guy for the job,'” Edwards said. “In his case, he’s going to be himself and do things the way he wants them done and I think it will work out very well for him.”
When it comes to his goals for the BYU football program, Sitake is hoping his past experience with Edwards, and his love for BYU, will help guide him through the future.
“I want to win. There's a lot of great players here. They’re used to winning here,” Sitake said. “It’s been that way for a long time and I’m looking forward to continuing that tradition.”