From foe to friend: How BYU’s new linebackers coach found a home where he least expected
Coaching veteran Kevin Clune has now worked for five Division I programs in Utah, quite possibly a record. Here’s the unlikely way he landed at BYU
Sitting around in Cedar City nearly 20 years ago when they were all at the beginning of what would become successful college football coaching careers, then-Southern Utah University assistant coaches Kalani Sitake and Aaron Roderick jokingly told fellow coach Kevin Clune, a devout Catholic, that he would end up coaching at BYU some day.
Sitake and Roderick, who played at BYU, would tell the Californian who knew nothing about the school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before he arrived at the University of Utah in 2001 to become a graduate assistant that he’d work for the Utes’ biggest rival.
Clune would simply laugh it off.
“I would say, ‘BYU?’ Oh, there’s no way — never, never, never,” Clune said this spring, recalling his stint as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at SUU under head coaches Gary Andersen and Wes Meier.
Well, guess who’s at BYU now? That would be the well-traveled Clune, hired in February by sixth-year head coach Sitake to be the Cougars’ new linebackers coach after Clune served as a volunteer senior defensive analyst last year during BYU’s magical 11-1 season.
“It was a very, very strange deal,” Clune said, describing how he ended up at BYU — one of the last places at which he ever thought he would coach.
“All my University of Utah friends that I have met in Salt Lake City, they all hate it that I work here and all that.” — New BYU linebackers coach Kevin Clune
Also unreal is the notion that Clune, who played at Fullerton (California) Junior College and the University of San Diego, is the only (known) person on the planet who has coached at five different Division I football programs in Utah: BYU, Utah, Utah State, Weber State and SUU.
Utah got a sixth D-I program last year when Dixie State moved up and began playing in the WAC and at the FCS level (formerly Division I-AA level).
Current BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark has coached at four (Utah, Weber State, SUU and BYU) and former BYU linebacker Justin Ena has coached at four (Utah, Weber State, SUU and USU) but not his alma mater. So Clune has the unofficial record.
“I think I might be the only person to ever do that,” Clune said. “It has all just come together. It is pretty funny, I think.”
Landing at BYU
Even in 2019, coaching at BYU was far from Clune’s realm of possibilities. He was the linebackers coach at Memphis in 2018 and 2019, and helped the Tigers go 12-2 in 2019 and win the American Athletic Conference.
But Tigers coach Mike Norvell left to take the Florida State job after the Cotton Bowl, and most of the defensive coaches, including Clune, were not retained. As the world started shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Clune packed up his belongings and headed West.
Having stayed close to Roderick since their SUU days, Clune stayed with BYU’s then-passing game coordinator at A-Rod’s home in Salt Lake City near the U. for the next few months, trying to figure out his next step.
“A-Rod is probably my best friend in the world,” Clune said.
The out-of-work coach wanted to head back to California and “spend as much time on the beach and time surfing as I could,” but those activities were shut down so he stayed with Roderick and “just sat around and basically talked football for like six months, just hanging out.”
Kevin Clune’s previous Utah stops
2001-02 — Graduate assistant at Utah
2003-04 — Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Southern Utah
2005-08 — Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Weber State
2009-13 — Linebackers coach at Utah State
2015 — Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach at Utah State
2020-present — Senior defensive analyst/linebackers coach at BYU
Of course, BYU was the only team playing football in the West the first few months of the 2020 season, and Clune had also remained friends with Sitake, so he volunteered to help the Cougars’ defensive efforts.
Clune proved especially valuable when BYU was preparing to face Navy in the opener because he had faced the Midshipmen and their vaunted triple-option attack while at Memphis.
“I am fired up. I want to help out. I had a lot of ideas that we had at Memphis that I thought would help at BYU, so I just started showing up and just talking through option defense, and that kind of geeks me up,” he said.
Reporters weren’t allowed at BYU practices last fall due to the pandemic, so Clune’s involvement went unpublicized and unnoticed by many, which was by design, he said. When Jeff Grimes and Eric Mateos weren’t able to make the trip to Boca Raton, Florida, for the bowl game due to COVID-19 protocols, Clune surfaced on the sidelines and the secret was out.
“It just grew and grew and grew and with these kids at BYU, just tremendous kids, and I was having so much fun,” he said. “They make it fun every day and you want to hang out with these guys. They love football and they are just solid, good kids that you want to be around.”
Clune said by the time the season ended, he didn’t want to leave and pursue other opportunities. So the Cougars got the 28-year coaching veteran, including 10 seasons as a defensive coordinator, in a steal, pretty much.
“You remember every single season (as a coach), but this season was unique. It was a lot of fun and I was surrounded by great kids who play hard, and surrounded by other coaches that I love,” he said. “So many great things came out of that season when there was the possibility that everything was going to get shut down. So it was a very, very strange year. It was a whole lot of fun, I can tell you that.”
When Grimes and Mateos left for Baylor in January, Sitake had two openings. He replaced Mateos with veteran offensive line coach Darrell Funk, promoted Roderick to offensive coordinator and used the opening to add a fifth defensive coach — Clune.
“He is a great person and an outstanding coach with a ton of experience,” Sitake said.
What was once a joke is now a reality.
“All my University of Utah friends that I have met in Salt Lake City, they all hate it that I work here and all that,” Clune said, laughing.
Ute fans can blame Whittingham
Ironically, if not for Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, Clune probably would have never made it to the Beehive State, at any school.
Clune first became acquainted with the state in the late 1990s when then-Utah assistant Whittingham was recruiting one of Clune’s players at Fullerton JC, defensive end Chuck Pine. One thing led to another, and Clune became a graduate assistant at the U. in 2001 and 2002.
From there, he coached at SUU, then at Weber State from 2005-08 and at Utah State from 2009-13, where he helped develop the great Bobby Wagner, now arguably the best LB in the NFL. He was Hawaii’s defensive coordinator in 2014, USU’s DC in 2015, and then reunited with Andersen at Oregon State when Sitake left the Beavers to become BYU’s head coach in 2016.
At Memphis for two years, Clune helped the Tigers defense rank No. 16 nationally in pass efficiency defense and No. 20 in passing defense.
Not bad for a guy who grew up in Monterrey, California, near some of the best golf courses in the country, but doesn’t golf.
“He doesn’t play, but he can tell you where all the best restaurants are,” said BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, an avid golfer.
Actually, Clune never planned on being a coach, either. After he tore up his knee during his college playing days, he got a degree in kinesiology from Cal-State Fullerton and was planning to “get a regular job” and work in computers while volunteering at the local high school or junior college.
He had “tremendous mentors” when he played, however, including Gene Murphy at Fullerton, and the coaching bug bit hard.
“So it has kinda been a strange, lucky, roller coaster type thing of just going with it. In the end, it always goes back to loving to work with the kids, and preparing them for the next step.” — Kevin Clune
“So it has kinda been a strange, lucky, roller coaster type thing of just going with it,” he said. “In the end, it always goes back to loving to work with the kids, and preparing them for the next step.”
Clune said each kid is different, and the secret to success is realizing that and not taking a cookie-cutter approach to coaching.
“Some kids, you are just trying to teach them the basics of life, and other kids who have all that stuff, they have great families and all that, they need to be taught how to give back, and to be community leaders and whatever,” he said. “Every kid is in a different place, and it is still all about that.”
‘A goof ball at times’
Asked about Clune’s coaching style during spring camp in March, BYU linebacker Josh Wilson — brother of New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson — said he was an immediate hit in Provo.
“He has been awesome just helping us out and all that,” Wilson said. “He is definitely a goofball at times. He is always messing around with us and he has created a good relationship with us. He hasn’t been here long, but he’s a good coach. He is smart. He is huge on watching film and being a smart football player.”
“Truly, I feel like a better person because I have been here with these guys, and they are making me a better coach and a better person every day. So all those things put together, I couldn’t be happier. This is something I never expected, something I never thought would happen. I have gained so much from this, I can’t even explain it, can’t put it into words.” — Kevin Clune
Wilson said Clune knows when to be serious and when to keep it light.
“Yeah, we have a job to do, but you have to use comedy, or really use anything you can, to keep their attention and get the point across,” Clune said. “So that is important. We are going to have as much fun as we can out there, but we also have the responsibility to play the best football that we can play.
“And so I take that part seriously. But the rest of it, my mentality is football is supposed to be a fun thing, so let’s make it fun.”
An honorary Utahn
Sitake said that Clune is a good fit at BYU because those coaching stops at Utah, SUU, Weber State and Utah State taught him about the nuances of the culture and coaching members of the church and returned missionaries.
Clune says his friendships with Whittingham, Roderick, Sitake and many other coaches from Utah have gotten him to this point.
“Probably 85% of what I do is based on coach Whittingham’s philosophies as far as individual techniques and linebacker play,” Clune said. “I owe a lot to him for my career.”
Clune considers Roderick’s family his own, and he can often be found attending Roderick’s daughter’s soccer games or his son’s flag football or Junior Jazz basketball games.
Clune said Roderick’s mother, Cheryl, “is somebody that takes care of me, too,” and Sunday dinners at the Rodericks’ homes are common.
“Probably 85% of what I do is based on coach (Kyle) Whittingham’s philosophies as far as individual techniques and linebacker play. I owe a lot to him for my career.” — Kevin Clune
“Especially with A-Rod’s kids, they make life meaningful to me,” he said.
As for his friendship with Sitake, Clune said it was a big reason he developed a fondness for BYU. He says when Sitake replaced Bronco Mendenhall in 2016, he started watching most of BYU’s games on TV and found himself pulling for the school that he once used to compete against.
He even called it a “heartbreaker” when BYU blew a 27-7 lead against Utah in 2018 and lost 35-27.
“There was always that thing — you are always going to hate on BYU (as a rival),” he said. “But it is kinda hard when Kalani is there. You know Kalani, and you know what he believes in. If you really know him, it is going to be impossible to hate BYU because he is such a great guy. He really does care about the kids, the school, and the legacy of LaVell (Edwards) and those types of things.”
Clune said long-running friendships with Clark, new passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake, special teams coach and assistant head coach Ed Lamb and others in Provo have made the transition that much easier.
And then there are the players, whom he said are as diligent as they come.
“Truly, I feel like a better person because I have been here with these guys, and they are making me a better coach and a better person every day. So all those things put together, I couldn’t be happier,” he said. “This is something I never expected, something I never thought would happen. I have gained so much from this, I can’t even explain it, can’t put it into words.”
Because it isn’t a joke any more. It is much more fun than that.