As great as 11-1 felt for Kalani Sitake’s 2020 edition of Cougar football, it did something else for the culture heading into 2021.
People kept telling his team it shouldn’t feel that good.
Yes, 2020 brought confidence, a national ranking, a high-draft prospect in Zach Wilson and plenty of attention that’s been missing for a long time in Provo.
But that isn’t exactly all.
The 11-1 season will be seen by many as a fluke, a fake, something you put an asterisk next to. Critics have piled on doubt about the wins, the competition, the records, Wilson’s performances. In general, the questioning has had an echo to it for months. It grew during the season right after the wins over Navy and Houston and continued through the win over Boise State and loss to undefeated Coastal Carolina.
It is disrespect.
From fans of teams and leagues that refused to play BYU, criticizing their work to weekly slights by CFP chairman Gary Barta, plenty of disrespect bubbled to the surface of a very strange football season.
In the annals of sport competition, competitors have used disrespect as motivation. The gladiators in ancient Rome used it in the Coliseum as did the Afghan riders using goat carcass for balls playing Buzkashi. You see it when soccer sometimes draws riots and rugby players doing the pork-eye stare down.
It’s motivational fodder, this disrespect.
It’s a well, that drawn from effectively, can fuel the slighted.
And BYU’s football team had its fill of it. From social to regular media talking heads and writers, it was sorely dissed for playing a replacement schedule and winning.
Assistant head coach Ed Lamb said he noticed this all last season, through the bowl game and through winter workouts and spring practice sessions.
“I think this team is hungry to establish true national recognition on a year-to-year basis,” said Lamb. “I think that our team is very aware of what the criticisms are of our strength of schedule last year and that’s a punch in the gut.
“So, hopefully, we can play with a chip on our shoulders. I felt it in the way that they’ve trained in the offseason. I’ve felt it in the way they’ve practiced in the spring, and they need to keep that going through the summer. We have a lot to prove.”
For many decades a lot of BYU football teams have come and gone, many with success, gaudy records and stars.
But I don’t think there have been that many that entered summer with this kind of motivation fueling their wait for camp to open.
In a huge rebuilding year and seven Power Five opponents on the schedule, they’ll have to do a lot of heavy lifting to earn respect that many took away this past year.
Using disrespect as motivation is only a tool, it isn’t a decisive formula. Players still need to make plays, block, tackle, throw and catch better than their opponents.
“So, hopefully, we can play with a chip on our shoulders. I felt it in the way that they’ve trained in the offseason. I’ve felt it in the way they’ve practiced in the spring, and they need to keep that going through the summer. We have a lot to prove.” — Ed Lamb
But it will help during the dog days of summer when hitting the weight room meets distractions. It can focus efforts.
Sitake knows all this. Football demands a tremendous amount of hard work and a plan, not just “feelings.”
A year ago his team entered spring with specific goals and designs and they worked. This is a different time with another approach.
“This year, the plans have to be different. We met as a team about it already,” said Sitake. “We still have to keep that chip on our shoulder type of attitude; that there is something to prove. There’re a lot of things for us to prove,” said Sitake.
“I mean we’ve had a really good year. Don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot of people that still doubt us, and there’s a lot of people that don’t believe that we have good enough talent here — even with the guys that we saw perform (at pro day). Obviously (they) saw that we had a lot of speed on our team and guys that ran well and looked athletic, and so maybe there’re people that think that that’s all we have.”
BYU's Kalani Sitake:— Sean Walker (@ActuallyDSW) November 21, 2020
“I think there’s a lot of talk about our schedule, and I just want to remind everyone that we were the only ones committed to playing football in the west in August. If you want to assume anything, you should assume we want to play games." pic.twitter.com/1Co2BNcOah
Part of that “proving” is that the team is still explosive, despite losing weapons like Wilson, Dax Milne, Khyiris Tonga, Tristen Hoge, Zayne Anderson and Brady Christensen.
Those are huge losses.
“A lot of guys, I think, need to prove some things. They have a lot to prove to others, and we’re gonna keep working with that,” Sitake said. “The key is it’s gonna take work, and it’s going to take humility, guys being humble. We haven’t arrived, haven’t done anything yet
“We’ve got to find a quarterback that’s going to be the best of the bunch, and then rally around him but (also) do that at every other position. We’ve got to find a way to get better in every position group and make sure that we’re ready to go when we go to Vegas and play that first game. From what I saw in spring, I’m really excited. I’m really excited with the hunger that I’m seeing in these guys’ eyes. They are ready to prove something.”
One has to guess, in the words of Lamb, that that’s how you get over a punch to the gut.