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Will Kalani Sitake be a serious candidate for the Washington job?

Jimmy Lake became the third Pac-12 coach this season to be fired. Will the Huskies look to BYU’s head coach for his replacement?

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BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake answers interview questions during BYU Football Media Day.

BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake answers interview questions during BYU Football Media Day at the BYU Broadcasting Building in Provo on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

There’s another head coaching vacancy in the Pac-12, as Washington announced Sunday that it has relieved Jimmy Lake of his coaching duties after less than two seasons.

Lake finished his short time as Washington’s head coach with a 7-6 record. He’s the third Pac-12 coach to be fired this season, joining USC’s Clay Helton and Washington State’s Nick Rolovich.

The situation at Washington could be a very intriguing one. Even though the Huskies are just 4-6 this season, the program has a strong tradition of success, including recently under Lake’s predecessor, Chris Petersen.

Washington won two Pac-12 championships under Petersen and made the College Football Playoff during the 2016 season, while also playing in New Year’s Six bowls the following two years. 

Washington announced it will honor the terms of Lake’s contract. His deal runs through the 2024 season and he was scheduled to make an average of $3.3 million over the next three years, according to the Seattle Times, with a $9.9 million buyout since he wasn’t fired for cause.

Who will the Huskies look to as a replacement?

Several coaches with western ties are already being mentioned as candidates for the position, and BYU’s Kalani Sitake is among them.

Why Kalani Sitake is an appealing candidate

There are a couple factors that could be seen as positives for BYU in retaining their coach. In the week before the Cougars opened the 2021 season, Sitake signed a contract extension that keeps him at BYU through the 2025 season.

Also, BYU is set to join the Big 12 in 2023, a positive development for the Cougars’ athletic program that has longed to play at the top level of collegiate athletics. 

The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman listed Sitake among eight top candidates to watch for in the Huskies’ coaching search.

“BYU’s Kalani Sitake has done an excellent job in Provo, Utah,” Feldman wrote. “The 46-year-old knows the Pac-12 well from a decade at Utah and some time at Oregon State.

“Sitake’s teams are physical, tough and smart, and he’s got very strong West Coast recruiting ties. Sitake is 19-3 in the past two seasons and 4-0 against Pac-12 teams this season.”

Sitake has a 46-28 record in six seasons as BYU’s coach after taking over for Bronco Mendenhall prior to the 2016 season.

The Cougars are 3-1 in the postseason under Sitake, and he has the program headed on an upward trajectory. Last year, BYU went 11-1 and finished the season ranked No. 11 in the final Associated Press poll, and this year, the Cougars are off to an 8-2 start and ranked in the top 15 nationally.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg said Sitake “should be a leading candidate” for the UW position for a variety of reasons that could prove compelling for the West Coast program.

“He has proved himself as a head coach the past two years, producing successful, tough and balanced teams at BYU, which is 19-3 since the start of the 2020 season. Sitake, 46, has Pac-12 coordinator experience at both Oregon State and Utah,” Rittenberg wrote. “Also, despite being a defensive coach, Sitake has produced impressive offenses with strong coordinators (Jeff Grimes, Aaron Roderick). He also could bolster recruiting, especially with top Polynesian players, a key prospect group for Washington over the years. The Huskies have never had a Polynesian head coach.”

Athlon Sports’ Steven Lassan also listed Sitake as a coaching option for Washington, while acknowledging it may not be likely. 

“This is a longshot, as it would take a lot for Sitake to leave BYU. Not only is Sitake coaching at his alma mater, but the program is set to move to the Big 12 in 2023,” Lassan wrote.

“The Cougars went 9-4 in Sitake’s debut in ’16 but followed that season with a disappointing 4-9 mark in ’17. However, Sitake quickly got the program back on track by winning at least seven games in each of the last four years, including an 11-1 mark last season. BYU is 46-28 overall under Sitake’s watch.”

The Athletic’s Chris Vannini included Sitake as a candidate for the Washington position on the basis that Sitake’s success appears to have staying power.

“BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has shown last season wasn’t a one-year wonder. The Cougars are 8-2 this season and 46-28 overall under Sitake, who has deep West Coast ties,” Vannini wrote.

“Would he leave his alma mater? BYU is also on its way to a Power 5 conference in the Big 12. But the Washington job has a higher ceiling without the unique challenges that come with recruiting at BYU.”

Another Utah connection is being mentioned for the UW position

Former BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes is another name cropping up in the conversations about finding Lake’s replacement.

Grimes spent three seasons (2018-20) as the Cougars’ offensive coordinator during his second stint with the program, and last year he guided a BYU offense that was among the nation’s best, led by future No. 2 NFL draft pick Zach Wilson.

Grimes is finding success again this season in his first year as offensive coordinator at Baylor, where the Bears are fourth nationally in rushing offense (237.5 yards per game), 18th in total offense (453.6 ypg) and 20th in scoring offense (35.4 points per game).

CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodds listed Grimes among six top candidates for the Washington position.   

“Grimes has put together back-to-back spectacular years at BYU and Baylor,” Dodd wrote. “In his last year at BYU in 2020, he coached Zach Wilson, who threw for 3,700 yards and only three interceptions.

The Cougars were third nationally in scoring and No. 1 in yards per play. This season at Baylor, Grimes has taken a former linebacker Gerry Bohanon and made him a legit run-pass threat. Abram Smith is a 1,000-yard rusher. Grimes called an amazing game in Saturday’s upset of Oklahoma.”

Lassan, too, sees the longtime coordinator Grimes as a strong candidate for the job, based on his career achievements.

Grimes’ coaching career has also included stops at LSU, Virginia Tech, Auburn, Colorado, Arizona State, Texas A&M (as a grad assistant) and Boise State.

“Grimes deserves a look for head-coaching opportunities after his performance with the Bears this year and in previous stints as an assistant,” Lassan wrote.

“The Texas native has never been a head coach, but he’s has assembled a strong resume as an assistant over a handful of stops and has made a significant impact as a play-caller in his last two stints as BYU and Baylor. 

“The Bears averaged 23.3 points a game last season but have jumped to 35.4 after Week 11 with Grimes at the controls. Prior to his stints at BYU and Baylor, Grimes worked as an assistant at Arizona State, Colorado, Virginia Tech and LSU. This would be a big-time job for a first-time coach, but Grimes’ background on offense and overall experience is appealing.”