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How Kalani Sitake went from the hot seat to a hot commodity

It wasn’t all that long ago that the BYU football coach was appearing on pundits’ hot-seat lists. Now he’s being mentioned as a potential candidate for coveted positions

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake gives the fans a shaka prior to the BYU-Virginia game.
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake signals to fans prior to BYU and Virginia playing at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

It wasn’t that long ago that BYU’s Kalani Sitake’s name appeared on “hot seat” lists — coaches in danger of losing their jobs. In the summer of 2020, before the start of Sitake’s fifth season, CBS reporter Dennis Dodd listed Sitake on his annual hot-seat list, complete with a rating system. A rating of four meant the coach was likely to lose his job. “He’s not a four but he’s getting close,” wrote Dodd. Sitake was given a three — defined as “Pressure is mounting.”

This was nothing new at the time. Sitake’s name was popping up almost annually on hot-seat lists and there were radio discussions and stories that wondered if he should be fired.

That seems like a long time ago now. Sitake is no longer on the hot seat, but he is on a hot streak, having won 19 of his last 22 games. The Cougars were 11-1 last season and finished 11th in the final national rankings. They are 8-2 this season and ranked 14th in the AP poll with a team that has few seniors. That the Cougars rank so high despite two losses is a measure of how far they — and Sitake — have come.

Dick Harmon, the longtime Deseret News BYU beat writer/columnist, recently wrote, “This season has been nothing but a validation of what direction Sitake is taking the BYU program.” Or maybe it’s just a validation of Sitake, period.

For the first time since Sitake became the head coach, this is truly Sitake’s team — the players, the coaches, the style of play, all of it.

Forget Sitake’s first year, in which the team was 9-4; that was still Bronco Mendenhall’s team and it succeeded largely because it had an NFL backfield, with Taysom Hill at quarterback and Jamaal Williams at running back.

A year later, Hill and Williams were gone and reality set in. Sitake was left with the rest of Mendenhall’s recruits, and they were ordinary. During the next three seasons the Cougars had a combined record of 18-21.

Sitake also was saddled with inexperienced, unprepared assistant coaches, some of whom were foisted on him by outsiders. Eight of the 10 coaches on Sitake’s first staff were former BYU players (10 of 14 if you count the four-man support staff), which must have been a record for homegrown coaches. Six of those 10 coaches had also coached at BYU earlier in their careers before going elsewhere, and two had actually been fired previously by the school.

They were “feel-good hires” that were widely celebrated by fans and school officials because of their deep BYU ties, but after just two seasons five of the original 10 coaches were gone, all of them former BYU players, including offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. It was another nice story — the beloved, former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback returning to his alma mater — but it looked like trouble to a more objective eye from the start. Detmer went from coaching a high school team — a small school at that — to running a Division I offense overnight.

So Sitake had to overcome some difficult challenges in those first few years. The one thing BYU did right was stick with the coach, even after he followed up that first 9-4 season with a 4-9 season, followed by back-to-back 7-6 seasons.

Remember all those media reports questioning whether Sitake would or should survive? His success underscores the need to give a coach five or so years to build his own program and to be judged by his own decisions and actions. Sitake was given the time and freedom to shake off the early mistakes and recruit his own players and coaches.

Following the 2019 season — when the Cougars were 7-6 — when some were putting Sitake on those hot-seat lists almost annually, BYU extended his contract extension through 2023. They rewarded him with a second contract extension in 2021 that will take him through 2025.

The last two teams have been Sitake’s teams, and now everything is falling into place — success on the field, national rankings, and, this season, an invitation to join the Big 12, a long-sought goal. Sitake is competent; he’s a hard worker and he’s a good guy, one who is well-liked and respected by everyone. He’s made good personnel decisions, both in hiring his staff and recruiting players. From 2011 through 2020 (which includes the last five years of the Mendenhall era), only six BYU players were taken in those nine NFL drafts. Five were taken in the 2021 draft.

This is fully Sitake’s time now.