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Inside the new deal: How the Oregon opening lit a fire under BYU to lock in Kalani Sitake

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BYU football coach Kalani Sitake celebrates the Cougars’ win over Utah with fans at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo.

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake celebrates the win as BYU defeats Utah in an NCAA football game at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. BYU won 26-17, ending a nine-game losing streak to the Utes.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

On the night BYU finally vanquished its rival, Utah, 26-17 in September, head football coach Kalani Sitake got a phone call of congratulations.

It was from Mark Harlan, the athletic director of the University of Utah, one of Sitake’s former employers. Utah wanted the win, of course, but the athletic director said there were lots of folks up north happy for their former defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.

Weeks later, reports began surfacing that Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham was considering retiring after a successful 17-year run as head coach. 

Whittingham, who was in the midst of a tremendous season rebound leading to a Pac-12 championship and Rose Bowl birth, put the rumors to rest — sort of: “I’m having as good of time right now as I ever have, so I’m not even contemplating that right now,” Whittingham said.

There can be no denying Sitake would be on the short list of those to succeed Whittingham.

Then November hit. 

The coaching landscape across college football changed, and Sitake — only the fourth head coach to lead BYU in the past 50 years — had a new contract just three months after a September extension on his old contract.

Here’s how it went down.

Coaching carousel

At the end of November, one of the game’s hottest coaches, Lincoln Riley, left Oklahoma for USC. Shortly after, Brian Kelly bolted from Notre Dame for LSU, remarkable in that his team was on the verge of a possible College Football Playoff run. How could two coaches leave blue blood programs having great success, buckets of money aside? 

Then Mario Cristobal Monday announced he was leaving Oregon — the Pac-12’s most consistent top performer — for Miami.

In all, there have been 28 coaching changes this season, including 13 among the Power Five programs. 

The chain reaction has been much like when Texas and Oklahoma decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. The move created unforeseen openings for programs, like BYU, to join a P5 conference.

When Cristobal left Oregon for Miami, the Ducks’ attention included Sitake. Cristobal and Sitake have the same agent, David Dunn at Athletes First Agency, making it easy to share information.

Oregon organized a Zoom call with the BYU head coach on Tuesday morning. By Tuesday afternoon, urgency was in play at BYU. Sitake never made a visit to the northwest.

During the Zoom call, the coach, sources say, told Oregon his priority was to stay at BYU. The call ended and the Ducks moved on. However, the call lit a fire under BYU and athletic director Tom Holmoe, already clearly aware of how the landscape had changed, moved into action, working with other senior administrators to craft a contract and a plan that would ensure Sitake and his staff stayed put.

Advantage: Sitake

Success

The attractive coaches on the market are successful on the field and with recruiting. Sitake is no different. His Cougars are 21-3 over the past two seasons. He went 6-1 against P5 opponents this year, which is the most P5 wins in a single season at BYU in program history.

Sitake turned heads with last year’s 10-1 record, but the accomplishment was muddied by naysayers due to the strength of schedule. This year, with arguably the toughest schedule in school history, he is 10-2 with a bowl game Saturday against UAB. And he did it with newfound depth at BYU — key to succeeding in a Power Five conference.

Advantage: Sitake

Urgency

By Tuesday afternoon of this week, negotiations were well underway, even as sports media grabbed ahold of Oregon’s interest after a writer in the northwest reported on candidates the school could tap. But down in Provo, Kalani said he wanted to stay. The administration wanted him to stay.

The proverbial elephant sitting quietly in the corner of the room during Sitake’s negotiations was BYU’s 2023 membership in the Big 12. The Cougars are down to 21 months before they kickoff as a Power Five program, and they aren’t ready.

Several weeks ago, Sitake presented the athletic department with a plan to provide more money for his current staff and to expand it to fall more in line with typical P5 programs.  That focused the deal not just on a contract for the head coach, but on sustainability for the program and retention of other coaches.

Another pressure point for BYU is the early signing period with recruits. Oklahoma has lost four 5-star recruits with the loss of Riley. BYU has lots of recruiting momentum since Sept. 10’s Big 12 announcement. Securing the head coach for years to come builds confidence in potential recruits.

Joining a P5 conference was BYU’s dream long before Sitake was hired in 2016, and it is the reason the Cougars chose to leave the Mountain West Conference for independence.

Sitake wants to compete the moment BYU steps foot into the league. To be ready then, he had been urging that action needed to be taken quickly.

Advantage: Sitake

End game

Negotiating a contract privately is difficult as both local and national media seek information. But even as radio talk show hosts continued to discuss the Oregon job on Thursday, the BYU deal was nearly inked — only a few details remained.

The Tuesday-Thursday negotiations required several things: lots of work from Holmoe, the school president to gain commitments for money, specifics for the length of the deal, future negotiations with assistant coaches and warp-speed support from BYU’s sponsor, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By Friday morning, it was done. The parameters — not the actual contract figures — were confirmed to the public. Kalani is extended through the 2027 season.

“In recent days and weeks there has been a lot of movement among college football head coaches,” Holmoe said in a statement. “Today, I’m thrilled to know that Kalani will continue to be our leader, coach and mentor going forward.”

Kalani never packed a bag for Oregon. For now, he’s staying put in Provo. 

Advantage: BYU