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In taking the high road, Kalani Sitake has the Cougars right where he wants them

Since taking over the job as BYU’s head coach, things haven’t always been easy. Despite the challenges, Sitake always found a way to rise above the fray

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BYU head coach Kalani Sitake looks on following their NCAA college football game against Idaho State.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake looks on following their NCAA college football game against Idaho State Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, in Provo, Utah. Sitake has BYU in a good position, nationally ranked for the second straight season as the Cougars program prepares to join the Big 12 in 2023.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

BYU was putting the finishing touches on a 35-31 win over USC last weekend when some fans in the stadium reportedly chanted, “Pac-12 champs!”

The Cougars, the team the Pac-12 has snubbed, played five Pac-12 teams this season and beat them all — Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, Washington State and USC. Maybe this qualifies them as honorary champions.

So what did BYU coach Kalani Sitake think about the chanting? “We are just happy to play the games (against the Pac-12 teams),” he said. “We are not going to talk down on anybody.”

Sitake took the high road. He’s got good manners, which is more than can be said for the USC students who directed a vile chant at BYU players during the game, for which USC apologized. Anyway, Sitake is not about to provide material for an opponent’s locker room.

But I can.

The Cougars owned the Pac-12 this season. They had a better Pac-12 Conference record than any member of the Pac-12. Sitake’s not going to say that either.

But I can.

Maybe the fans are right and BYU’s showing entitled them to claim the Cougars as unofficial league champions. Sitake is not going to say that.

But I can.

He’s also not going to mention that the Cougars exacted a little revenge even if they never considered it. Sitake won’t say that.

But I can.

The Cougars of course have made no secret over the years of their desire to join the Pac-12, but they were denied, even when it seemed like the natural move. Utah was invited — as was lowly Colorado. In 2018 former Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen told Mercury News reporter Jon Wilner that it was because BYU was not a research university. “So that has always been a barrier to BYU being considered and it never really has been considered for membership,” he said.

It’s curious how it has all played out since then. Research this. The Pac-12 became irrelevant; the Cougars became relevant.

Denied Pac-12 admission, BYU chose independence for the next 10 years and wandered in the football wilderness. It was a bleak decade overall. They played front-loaded schedules, they lost a lot of games, their brand faded and they couldn’t find a conference to take them in.

But it all worked out, didn’t it. Some of it could be ascribed to persistence, some to luck. Even COVID-19 helped jump-start the program, giving them a dumbed-down schedule that gave the Cougars traction again. Result: The Cougars have won 21 of their last 24 games. They were ranked 11th in the final 2020 poll; they are currently ranked 12th.  

The Pac-12 continues its downward spiral. Sitake wouldn’t say that, either.

But I can.

The Pac-12’s problems — from their anemic TV ratings to their performance on the field — have been well-documented. This year will mark the sixth time in the eight-year history of the national playoff that the Pac-12 has been shut out, which is why outgoing Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott lobbied for an expanded playoff (if you’re not good enough to get a place at the table, get a bigger table).

The league has lost 22 of its last 33 bowl games. Just two Pac-12 teams are currently ranked — Oregon 10th, Utah 14th, with BYU between them. The SEC has six teams in the rankings, the ACC and Big Ten four each. Last season, the Pac-12 had one team in the top 25 — Oregon, at 25. 

Meanwhile, the Cougars, after being refused by the Pac-12, wound up getting a better offer. They accepted an invitation to join the Big 12.

Could it have worked out any better for the Cougars?