Nobody likes to be told what to do, but if BYU basketball coach Mark Pope wants to hang around at BYU, he should visit with Kalani Sitake.

On the heels of an 8-5 football season, Sitake did what coaches hate to do — he had to change. To keep his job, he had to swallow some pride, admit defeat and accept the idea that a different way might be a better way. He even had to dismiss some of his closest friends.

Going 0-for-October with a roster of walking wounded, including quarterback Jaren Hall, prompted Sitake’s first move — changing out the strength and conditioning staff. Yes, injuries are part of the game, but BYU’s unusually high volume begged for a new approach. Moving forward, the Cougars must be stronger, faster and healthier.

BYU’s defensive malaise during October began by allowing 496 yards of total offense to Notre Dame in Las Vegas, including a time-of-possession disparity of 40:55 to 19:05. The following week, the Cougars gave up 644 yards and 52 points to Arkansas in Provo. Liberty ran up 547 yards on their own field and scored 41 points against BYU, and East Carolina capped the nightmare month when Pirates running back Keaton Mitchell rushed for 178 yards at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

The wounds cut so deep that not even a 4-0 finish and a victory in the New Mexico Bowl could save defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, linebackers coach Kevin Clune, defensive line coach Preston Hadley and safeties and special teams coach Ed Lamb.

Sitake replaced them with Jay Hill (defensive coordinator, safeties), Kelly Poppinga (defensive ends, special teams), Justin Ena (linebackers) and Sione Po’uha (defensive tackles), while retaining Jernaro Gilford (cornerbacks).

With the defensive staff rebuilt, Sitake hustled to solidify a solid recruiting class. He also secured some key additions in the transfer portal with quarterback Kedon Slovis (Pittsburgh), running back Aidan Robbins (UNLV) and FCS All-American cornerback Eddie Heckard (Weber State).

Slovis and Robbins have already earned their college degrees and Heckard is a fifth-year senior.

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To Sitake’s credit, the offseason moves restored optimism, even momentum, to his program ahead of joining the Big 12 — hardly the side effects of an 8-5 finish with a departing quarterback. In fact, the day the Big 12 released the fall football schedule, including dates against Texas and Oklahoma, Cougar Nation greeted it with celebration and eagerness — a far cry from the despair of October.

That’s the power of positive change. But change isn’t easy. If it was, coaches would do it more often.

With the regular season finale on Saturday against San Francisco (8 p.m., ESPNU) and the pending WCC Tournament March 2-7 in Las Vegas, Pope will soon face a dilemma similar to Sitake and he would be wise to borrow a page from his playbook.

Priority No. 1 is to decide how bad he wants to coach at BYU and if he is willing to change course. Sitake showed that with his adjustments. Pope’s fate in Provo may depend on it.

Second, scour the support staff. If a change in personnel isn’t necessary, a change in emphasis certainly is. BYU’s offense needs help. It needs a plan that complements the talent pool and a substitution pattern that supports it.

The Cougars also need size. How BYU ended up with the smallest roster in the WCC is perplexing.

As tremendous as 6-foot-6 sophomore Fousseyni Traore can be, sending him into the Big 12 as the “big man” can’t be part of the master plan. Traore deserves better. He’s not a center — not even in the WCC. While improving, 6-foot-9 sophomore Atiki Ally Atiki isn’t one either.

Third, portal shop less and recruit the BYU base more. The small roster makes for an even smaller margin for error. Returned missionaries Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders and Tanner Toolson, who were all part of Pope’s first recruiting class, figure prominently into BYU’s future, as does Collin Chandler, who is serving a mission in London, England.

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There is nothing wrong in recruiting the world for the Traores and Atikis as freshmen with futures, but this addictive idea that the transfer portal is where the answers are is not only time-consuming, it’s expensive and it’s flawed — a notion supported by the results of the last two seasons.

As we’ve seen around the country, portal kids can help an already-constructed roster, but they aren’t good at creating one and throwing more NIL money at them doesn’t make them better, especially when they haven’t earned it. When underachieving is rewarded, it becomes the standard.

BYU’s tradition of winning basketball was built, not bought.

No matter the wins and losses, every team gets a chance in March. The Cougars, (16-14/6-9) will take their shot in Las Vegas against a tournament field that is vulnerable from top to bottom. A magical finish is possible, and welcomed, but even if comes, it won’t solve BYU’s core issues.

Sitake won his last four games, with wins at Boise State and Stanford and a bowl victory, but it couldn’t offset the fact that changes were needed. The changes had to happen.

After Saturday’s loss at No. 17 Saint Mary’s, Pope’s program is 15-15 over the last two seasons in the WCC. His Cougars play with fight, but fight is not enough. BYU appeared to have turned the corner Feb. 2 when they blew out LMU 89-61, but they haven’t won since — lowlighted by a double-digit loss at last-place Pepperdine and a seven-point defeat at home to Santa Clara, where BYU hardly looked interested.

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This is a delicate time for the Cougars. The level of competition isn’t the only thing going up when BYU joins the Big 12 — ticket prices are increasing, too. Investing fans, boosters and NIL funders need to know the captain of the ship is sailing in the right direction. Unlike the surprised crew of the Titanic, the Cougars have been told for 19 months that there is an “Iceberg, right ahead!”

There is no doubt Pope can win in Provo. Just two years ago, with a much different roster, his Cougars were in the NCAA Tournament going toe-to-toe against eventual Final Four participant UCLA. The year before that, BYU was 24-8 and full of optimism until COVID-19 cut the music before the Big Dance could even start.

Three significant events followed Pope’s first two seasons, which have deeply affected his last two.

In April 2021, the NCAA’s one-time transfer rule took effect, which allowed student-athletes to transfer without having to sit out a season. Three months later, on July 1, the NCAA allowed players to receive compensation for their name, image and likeness. Three months after that, on Sept. 10, BYU was invited to join the Big 12, putting Pope’s program into the toughest basketball conference in America.

Two of the three developments changed college basketball and created an intoxicating shop-’til-you-drop mentality for recruiting and retaining players. The Big 12 invitation helped land Chandler, BYU’s highest-rated recruit in program history, but it also turned Pope and his staff into portal buyers, where panic purchases are made that carry no guarantees.

There is a difference, on and off the court, between an undergraduate who wants to attend and compete at BYU and a kid who is only coming to Provo for promised playing time and NIL money. Exceptions do exist, but Pope has been burned by the latter too many times during the last two seasons.

The Titanic is sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean because the crew failed to change its course. The bottom of the Big 12 is waiting for BYU if Pope doesn’t alter his plans, too. It’s not too late, but some serious reconfiguring is needed to keep the program afloat and the captain in his seat.

Asking for directions is not what guys like to do, but Pope would be wise to call up Sitake and listen.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com. 

BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, and BYU basketball coach Mark Pope take a selfie.
BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, and BYU basketball coach Mark Pope take a selfie during a press conference announcing that BYU has accepted an invitation to the Big 12 Conference at BYU in Provo on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News