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Why locking up Kalani Sitake is a milepost for Big 12 preparation

BYU invested in both momentum and the energy of Sitake’s 21-3 run the past two seasons

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Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake talks with Aggie fans in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake talks with Aggie fans in Logan on Friday, Oct. 1, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

What BYU did with the contract extension for football coach Kalani Sitake on Friday was strap a turbo boost to the school’s athletic department engine heading into the Big 12.

The school locked up a coach who went 21-3 the past two seasons. Only Alabama’s Nick Saban and Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell have more wins in that time span.

Combined with navigating Big 12 entry, the move Friday by the Kevin Worthen administration will be seen as the biggest sports advancement since the days of President Merrill Bateman at the close of the LaVell Edwards era when he helped direct building of the Larry Miller Baseball Complex, Student Athlete Building and Indoor Practice Facility.

Sitake, a two-time Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year finalist, is in a unique situation, as is the football program he’s operating going forward.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said Sitake has “galvanized” the team and fan base and “there is nobody on the planet” the program would rather have as head coach.

Sitake has always fashioned himself after his mentor and coach, the late LaVell Edwards. As of Friday he now has the opportunity to impact BYU football in the kind of ways Edwards did in coming years. First in line of all of that is his personal impact on the lives of players.

Sitake is the opposite of Alabama’s Nick Saban, whose businessmanlike aura gives you the feeling he just left a corporate riff with board members.

Sitake’s unique humility, genuine self-deprecating sense of humor, intense passion and natural ease at hugging people and putting others before himself has struck a chord with his players and more importantly, recruits.

Recruiting is the engine that runs college football and if a head coach doesn’t sell himself and his program as welcoming, inviting and warm, he has no chance. In this regard, Sitake’s bucket runs over. “I’ve never seen a coach run into the student section and give hugs,” defensive back Chaz Ah You told KSL radio on Friday. “With Kalani, he just makes it fun.”

The extension was presented as a much bigger package of improvements, enhancements, and in-program perks than Sitake’s own financials. It includes more competitive compensation for assistant coaches and added support staff, all designed to close the gap between BYU’s very successful trajectory and what is needed as a Power Five department.

Those details were undefined on Friday but will hopefully be explained in the weeks to come.

Bottom line? BYU athletics, specifically football, just found out it will no longer be operating under a mindset and approach from the ’70s.

It appears BYU is tapping into money brought in by the burgeoning Silicon Slopes high-tech growth in Utah. Of late, former NFL and Cougar tight end Chad Lewis, in concert with key alumni, has successfully plugged into new sources of money. The Coaches Circle, an instrument to create money for coaching salaries in the late ’90s, has enjoyed 20% portfolio investment returns under the late Sy Kimball, whose funeral in Newport Beach, California, was Saturday.

“The key is not thinking that money is the main resource. ... For us, it’s defining what the resources are ... that’s the key here,” Sitake told reporters on Friday.

Holmoe said areas impacted for future growth include strength and conditioning, nutrition, training room and recruiting. BYU is understaffed in all areas when compared to P5 programs.

Just speculating here, but the university may be looking hard at the athletic department’s decades-old battle of obtaining increased revenue shares from camps and workshops in which coaches are involved. Before retiring, Edwards fought and won for more control of his football camps and compensation for his staff. Same for athletic food and drink concessions at events, of which campus food services enjoys the lions share.

Food services makes contributions to the university’s general fund and then that fund periodically filters money to the athletic department for special needs and projects.

Another adjustment could come from a long-running battle with Special Events, which, in the past, has charged the athletic department for fully staffing an athletic event when it was known beforehand that a smaller crowd would attend.

At BYU, many established kingdoms on campus like to feed out of the athletic trough and line department budgets. Maybe the administration is balancing things out — breaking down some barriers to funnel more money to the origin of the coin.

If so, this likely had to come from the president and his council with increased cooperation and commonality.

Finally, folks like to make Friday’s move all about Sitake getting money to stay. 

You don’t understand Sitake. He has had chances to leave BYU before the Oregon interview and his name being mentioned in connection with USC and Washington. He could have made more money by taking opportunities during and after the 2020 Zach Wilson season.

It has never been about the money.

Sitake has given away personal money to make life easier for some of those around him, and any paycheck increase for them would be at the heart of money talk with BYU administrators. Sitake is fiercely loyal to BYU. In return, some of his staff members who have received opportunities to leave for more money said no can do.

This deal got done Friday to clear up Sitake’s situation leading up to the Independence Bowl and the early letter of intent signing period, which begins Wednesday. He is now having decommitted players from Virginia and other programs calling.

Also, although it’s unlikely at all he’d leave BYU, it prevented a mass exodus of his current players to the transfer portal to try and follow him. Committed players could have decommitted and opened up their recruitment.

Current four-star BYU commit transfer from Oregon, Kingsley Suamataia, tweeted out on Wednesday, Dec. 8, “We follow Kalani Sitake,” and it was retweeted by other potential signees. On Friday, Virginia commit Joe Brown, a center at Lone Peak High, committed to BYU after decommitting from Virginia.

Two other Virginia commits, the McKenzie twins (Marcus and Dominique) were scheduled to visit Provo this past weekend, a decision made after Bronco Mendenhall announced he would not coach the Cavaliers after this season.

“Those McKenzie twins are exactly the kind of athletes with speed BYU will need if they want to compete in the Big 12,” according to Margin Hooks, who has trained both of them in his Sky’s the Limit wide receiver training camps centered in Dallas.

Bottom line? With higher aspirations come elevated expectations.

Sitake knows this. He just wants to have the tools to level the playing field.

At 21-3 the past two seasons, nobody has accomplished more with less.