Kalani Sitake could have become a teacher, entered corporate sales, worked construction, hung aluminum siding or done concrete flatwork. He chose to coach football.
Now 46 with decades of experience, six of that as the first Division I head college football coach of Tongan heritage, BYU’s Sitake has forged a clear identity of his coaching style, philosophy and approach: He is the ultimate players coach.
“I think Kalani is one of the most influential people that I’ve ever known,” said his offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick, whose offense went up against Sitake’s defense when both were at the University of Utah.
“Kalani is brilliant. He’s really smart and he knows what he’s doing. He’s not just a cheerleading heart and soul culture guy. He executes his plan to perfection and I’m really, really fortunate to work with him. He inspires me to work hard.” — BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick
When Roderick says this, he includes some of the most influential people in his life, his grandpa and the late legendary LaVell Edwards, and a close group of “special people” in his life.
This past Sunday, Sitake and his wife, Timberly, welcomed a baby girl into their family, their fourth. One more player to coach.
Sitake has centered his coaching career on his greatest strength. He is a people person. He is an extrovert who is energized by being around others. It fuels him. He’s gregarious, assertive, warm and active in approaching people, shaking hands and giving hugs. He is excitable and seeks positive reinforcement in others. He embraces solving issues by discussion and talk. He remembers names, families and values relationships.
This is why he was elected team captain as a player. It’s why he’s getting high marks as a coach.
He looks people right in the eye when he talks. He is not shy. He does not hide. He doesn’t come off as Tony Robbins and his humility tells him not to care.
“Kalani is younger than me, but I put him right up there like one of the most influential people I’ve ever met,” explained Roderick. “He just has a gift for connecting with people, for making them believe in themselves. I think the most important thing we can do as coaches is to give our players confidence and the tools that they need to be successful.
“Kalani just oozes confidence, but he’s a really humble guy. He has confidence in himself that is contagious within our team.”
Roderick says putting the label of “players coach” on Sitake isn’t exactly fair because doing so overshadows his other traits and talents that are extremely effective and stand out.
“Kalani is brilliant. He’s really smart and he knows what he’s doing. He’s not just a cheerleading, heart-and-soul, culture guy. He executes his plan to perfection and I’m really, really fortunate to work with him. He inspires me to work hard.”
Sitake has endured challenges as a head coach, recruiting to an independent program, transitioning from Bronco Mendenhall’s successes, guiding a team through a pandemic and putting his own brand on the program. He’s had to reform the team culture to fit his own personality and strengths and is now recruiting to become a Big 12 football team.
Of course, it is asking for bias when you go to members of his staff for their perception of his coaching. That goes to another level when you question his cousin, passing game coordinator Fesi Sitake, who sees his boss as a kind of older brother when they were growing up, sometimes in the same household.
A former offensive coordinator at Weber State, Fesi says if you look at the landscape of college football, high school recruits are getting bombarded with letters, phone calls, texts, tweets and FaceTime — the nature of the times. And Kalani has decided to not let it consume him.
“Instead of taking all his time away from the football team family and his own family, he puts his focus on his team and family. He says he will leave front-line recruiting to his assistant coaches and get involved when he needs to, but all his time and energy goes to who he cares about the most: the players and his family,” said Fesi.
Recruits are not guaranteed, he explained.
“We need to be in it and try as hard as we can to get these guys as part of the business. But all of Kalani’s time is devoted to his family and his guys on this team and making sure that they know he is there for them every second,” he said. “All you need to do is come to a practice or in our locker room and see how he talks to the players and how they react to him. They don’t change.
“There are a lot of programs where players change when they are in front of a coach because they feel they have to put on a front. Kalani has created a culture where we can all be ourselves as coaches and as players. That is powerful and it all just goes back to how he was raised, things he believes in, having fun, enjoying life, not taking things for granted and loving people around you.
“That’s trickled down throughout this program, and it’s flowing and it’s part of the culture and it’s been a really humbling experience for me to witness. We’re lucky to have him.”
Players facing personal challenges, even crises, can find themselves on an island in college, whether an athlete or regular student. Fesi believes because Sitake’s players know they can be themselves, they can bring their problems to him and share.
“When you are struggling, you need somebody to talk to. These guys are away from their families and it’s a cliche thing to say coaches are like parents away from home and sometimes coaches want that, but actually don’t feel they are, for whatever reason,” he said. “With Kalani, they do. That’s because of the culture he’s established. Anytime these guys are in trouble and feel they need someone to talk to, they get that from Kalani. They can go right into his office and say whatever is on their mind.”
A good example of this is when linebacker Francis Bernard ran into off-the-field issues. Sitake looked at what was best for him in his life and his career and supported his transfer to Utah, where he ended up finishing his college career on a very positive note. The bottom line is that Sitake looked at the individual and put his efforts into elevating the player through the best path available, even if it meant Bernard would make some huge plays against his own team in a rivalry game. Afterward, the hug was genuine.
Sitake is not fake.
“He connects with players so well,” said tight ends coach Steve Clark. “He laughs with them, he cries with them, he’s there for them. That is what separates Kalani from any other coach in the nation is his ability to deeply love and care for the players he brings in. His door is always open and that’s pretty unusual. Not a lot of head coaches have an open-door policy for players.”
Clark says many times when he’s been meeting with Sitake he suddenly says he has to go meet someone or talk to someone, that he is needed by a player and he needs to get back with me. “That’s the kind of person he is.”
Running backs coach Harvey Unga said the open door is a physical reality. It is open and inviting. “The term ‘players coach’ is often used loosely, but with Kalani it is the real deal,” said Unga.
There have been times, said Unga, that a player would meet with Sitake and discuss injuries or bring up their level of fatigue for the work mandated by the practice of the day. Later in the day coaches would get a text from Sitake, who announced there would be an adjustment to the schedule, sometimes not going full contact in pads.
“To tell you the truth, previous coaches would probably laugh at a player who’d brought up something like that, but with Kalani, he listens. Those are the times that he actually listens to the kids and does something about it,” Unga explained. “When they have things they need or even if it is something they want, he’ll go to bat for them. When you talk about trying to better the program, everything he does in terms of weight training and nutrition, he makes it about the players.
“He tells us coaches in staff meetings all the time we better make it all about the players and let them know how much we love them and care about them and then do what we have to do to make them succeed. The players know it and feel it. It’s different.
“Players play their butts off for him because they know he has their back. You see it and you feel it in the program.”
“He connects with players so well. He laughs with them, he cries with them, he’s there for them. That is what separates Kalani from any other coach in the nation is his ability to deeply love and care for the players he brings in. — BYU tight ends coach Steve Clark
In a few weeks, players will arrive back on campus to begin official workouts for fall camp. It will be demanding and will require endurance and discipline — the very nature of football.
Those who have lazily approached offseason workouts will be exposed quickly under the heat of the August summer sun.
Sitake will be there front and center, his wide-brimmed hat providing cover for his sunglasses, a whistle dangling from his neck.
He doesn’t hang siding. He doesn’t wield a finishing float for a slab of patio concrete. His mission is to elevate men. To just try to make them better than they were the day before.