Kalani Sitake has a lot at stake, too, when No. 25 BYU hosts former coach and the 6-2 Cavaliers
Having replaced Bronco Mendenhall at BYU in 2016, Cougars coach can further win the hearts and minds of BYU fans with a win over his predecessor Saturday
Call it the Polynesian Bowl II or the Clash of Former and Current Cougar Coaches or the Return of Bronco or even the Big Halloween Eve Bash between a pair of better-than-average 6-2 college football teams.
Cougars on the air
at BYU (6-2)
Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
At LaVell Edwards Stadium, Provo
Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM
The focus leading up to Saturday’s showdown at LaVell Edwards Stadium has rightfully been on Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall’s return after he spent 11 seasons as BYU’s head coach from 2005-15.
Surely, Mendenhall and his staff of fellow former BYU coaches and/or players such as Robert Anae, Nick Howell, Kelly Poppinga, Garett Tujague, Jason Beck, Mark Atuaia, Shane Hunter, Justin Anderson and Matt Edwards (LaVell’s grandson) deserve all the praise and attention that will be heaped upon them before the game kicks off at 8:15 p.m. MDT, or shortly thereafter, on ESPN2.
Emotions will be running high on the UVA sidelines, and in the Hoos’ coaches booth far above the field, even if Mendenhall on his radio show Tuesday in Charlottesville said the Cougars are just another “nameless” and “faceless” opponent for the Cavs. Yeah, right.
But it could be argued that the nonconference matchup is just as important to BYU’s coaching staff, and in particular the man who replaced Mendenhall and will be out to show, again, that he was the right choice to succeed the 99-game winner in Provo.
Kalani Sitake (44-28 in Provo) has a lot on the line in this one, too.
“If you look at the last 16 years or so, there have been two guys in this seat, and he is one of them, so I think if there is anybody that would understand a little bit of what I am going through, he would be the guy,” Sitake said.
This isn’t one of those little-brother-trying-to-impress-big-brother scenarios; Sitake is his own man, doesn’t worry much about validation, has a completely different personality, and has not tried to duplicate anything Mendenhall did at BYU, aside from winning.
There have been no quests for perfection and not much about being a band of brothers.
“We do everything we can to win every game. We all recognize this is a huge game and we are playing a very good team. We have been through some battles already. We have already beaten four Power Five teams and this is going to be another game just like those games. It is going to be another four-quarter game.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
But his friends and some of his assistants acknowledge a win over not just Mendenhall, but Anae and the others returning, would further validate Sitake’s place in the hearts and minds of BYU fans — and former players.
“I have no doubts about how badly they want to win this game,” said BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, having been through this several times at BYU and Utah. “They are going to want it just as badly as we do. That would describe my experience when I have coached against my former schools. I appreciate those guys, but you want to win the game.”
How much has the so-called “Bronco Bowl” gripped the attention of the state? It might be the first time in six years that University of Utah fans, who used to despise the staid, stoic Mendenhall when he was in Provo, cheer for Virginia.
Then again, as BYU offensive lineman Joe Tukuafu alluded Wednesday, there are a lot of red-donning Polynesians around the country who see Sitake’s ascension to the first head coach in the FBS of Tongan ancestry a point of pride, even if it is with the rival Cougars.
“It is big,” Tukuafu said, referencing a similar scenario when Virginia played Navy in the Military Bowl a few years ago. “Many Polynesians on both sides, and especially the coaches. … Bronco Mendenhall had a great history here, and Kalani is (matching it). I feel like that is why it is big.”
Defensive lineman Uriah Leiataua is one of the few players left with ties to the former staff, having been recruited to BYU before his church mission by Mendenhall.
“I love Bronco. I love his staff,” Leiataua said. “But this is our team now. I love Kalani. I love everything he has done for us here.”
Is there a heightened sense of urgency emanating from the coaches this week?
“Kalani has been super consistent with his message, that our team has a culture of love and learning. And that’s been his message from literally Week 1, even before,” said defensive end Pepe Tanuvasa. “In that sense, no, we haven’t strayed from who we are as a team and what makes us special — and that is our love and learning for each other.”
Roderick said the fact that Virginia is another Power Five opponent is motivation enough for this coaching staff to not leave a single stone unturned.
“I mean, I don’t know how you could heighten our urgency more. Every week is huge. This is serious stuff for us. This is our job. This is what we do. We take every game as seriously as we can. We work as late as we have to. We get to work as early as we need to,” Roderick said.
“We do everything we can to win every game,” he continued. “We all recognize this is a huge game and we are playing a very good team. We have been through some battles already. We have already beaten four Power Five teams and this is going to be another game just like those games. It is going to be another four-quarter game. It is going to be physical, and we know what we are in for.”
Running backs coach Harvey Unga, who played for Mendenhall from 2006-09, said he hasn’t noticed much different in Sitake’s demeanor this week, possibly because every game on the Cougars’ 2021 schedule has been ultra-important as they work to validate last year’s 11-1 record against lesser competition.
“I can’t speak for the defense, but for our room, every week we have had a heightened sense of urgency,” Unga said. “This isn’t an easy schedule we have, so each week we are definitely ramping up our meetings, our intensity and stuff. But this week, yeah, there is obviously a little bit more of an urgency, because they’ve got a good team. I am sure those guys are going to play their butts off for Bronco when he comes back here.
“There’s a lot of excitement for this game. We can feel it. Our guys will be ready.”
Both head coaches have had nothing but praise for each other this week, continuing a theme for Sitake since he took the northwest corner office at the Student Athlete Building on Dec. 19, 2015.
“I am looking forward to connecting with him pregame,” Sitake said Monday. “I am going to give him the warm welcome that he deserves because of the time he spent here and the things he has done for this organization.
“Being a BYU fan myself, I have tons of appreciation for him on that. But once the game starts, we will go back to the game being about the players, and once it is finished, regardless of the outcome, that level of respect will still be there for him and his staff.”