How two mentors influenced Kalani Sitake’s bowl preparation
BYU’s head coach took valuable lessons from his former boss Kyle Whittingham and his former coach LaVell Edwards in formulating approach to bowl games
vs. Alabama-Birmingham (8-4)
Dec. 18, 1:30 p.m. MST
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He’s also added a specific theme to postseason play. It’s the same anthem he uses for the season and every week during it.
Call it the Gratitude Matrix.
In this structure, there is no room for an ungraceful attitude or ingratitude.
While many fans are disappointed 10-2 BYU did not win the political gambit called the CFP cartel rankings in last Sunday’s televised blue-blood pageant, Sitake sees it with different eyes. He realizes as an Independent, every game is a valuable chance to just play and it is his job to sell that “blessing” to his guys, and they should respect their foe.
Sitake tells players they should be grateful to be playing, thankful for the opportunity and not take for granted the experience to be on the field with their teammates, for some, for the last time.
The Cougars play Alabama-Birmingham on Dec. 18 in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana. It marks the second straight bowl trip to the South for the Cougars. BYU defeated Central Florida 49-23 last year in the Boca Raton Bowl.
“We are honored to be in this game,” said Sitake. “These guys are excited to play in this game, excited to play UAB, and honored to be on the same field with them.”
Sitake is grateful he’s got an indoor practice field to prepare for his fifth bowl game in the past six years since taking the helm at BYU.
Constructed in 2003, the facility has transformed BYU bowl prep for two decades.
As a player under Edwards in the ’90s, it was definitely a different experience in December trying to get in meaningful practices with freezing temperatures, frozen turf and snow. Sitake remembers position groups alternating time in the Smith Fieldhouse annex using a limited 30 yards of artificial turf.
Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer (1990) remembers the day snow plows pushed piles of snow off the field so the Cougars could practice outside. When the team went into the Smith Fieldhouse for practices, there was limited room to practice timing with deep balls. On occasion, there were walk-through and offensive practices in limited space on the basketball floor with receivers and backs wearing tennis shoes.
“There wasn’t much room to throw out routes or throw deep,” said Detmer on Monday when asked to reflect.
“But we did have some days in San Diego,” said Detmer. He broke a college bowl record with 576 yards passing in a loss to Penn State in the 1989 Holiday Bowl.
Still, Edwards, whose teams were 7-14-1 in bowls during his storied career, made sure the bowl trips were a reward and included players’ wives in the trips to make it a total team family experience.
Sitake has done the same.
“We have 37 married players on this team and look forward to player spouses making the trip to have fun and we can show appreciation to them for taking their husbands’ time away for practice and travel during the season,” said Sitake.
From Whittingham, Sitake learned the importance of getting a win through all the hoopla, distractions and vacation-type gauntlet of a bowl trip.
“It is a priority to use this time to develop young players, some who won’t play in the game. It is a time to see them make progress and for others, there is a lot they can improve on. It’s a foundation of the program to use this time to improve.”
Sitake said it is as important as a spring practice with the added bonus of playing a game at the end. The NCAA allows 15 practices for bowl games, some of that divided into weight training.
Sitake said Whittingham emphasized winning and that improvement was not limited to players but the staff, too.
The Cougars, who went 5-6 in bowl play during the Bronco Mendenhall era, which included multiple trips to Las Vegas, have experienced just one bowl loss under Sitake, a disappointing 38-24 loss to Hawaii in the 2019 Hawaii Bowl. On that trip, senior safety Austin Lee did not play, a big development learned late in bowl preparation.
BYU has a chance to get 11 wins for the second straight season and climb in the final Associated Press rankings posted at the end of the bowl season.
This bowl deal, Sitake said over and over again, is a chance to respect the game.