When he was Kalani Sitake’s teammate at BYU 20 years ago under legendary coach LaVell Edwards, Jason Scukanec couldn’t have predicted that Sitake would end up becoming the head coach at their alma mater.

But Scukanec, an offensive lineman, did recognize qualities that Sitake possesses, which includes being an ideal ambassador for BYU football.

On a roster full of strong personalities, like himself, defensive lineman Hans Olsen and quarterback Brandon Doman, Sitake was “the perfect mediator,” according to Scukanec, who is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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“Kalani was always that guy. At a place like BYU, you need guys like that. Not everyone is going to be a choirboy. You can’t have criminals and people that are always doing the right thing. You have to have a guy in the middle that bridges that gap,” said Scukanec, now the longtime host of a sports talk radio show in Portland, Oregon. “He wasn’t a goody-two-shoes and he wasn’t a jerk. He was the perfect mixture. When I found out he was going back to BYU, I thought, ‘That’s a perfect fit.’ You couldn’t ask for a better representative.”

In five seasons with Sitake at the BYU helm, his teams have experienced humbling losses and memorable victories. A year ago, exhilarating wins over Tennessee and USC were offset by frustrating setbacks at Toledo and South Florida. At that point, Sitake’s future seemed uncertain. Then, BYU upset No. 14 Boise State then steamrolled Utah State, and weeks later, Sitake signed a contract extension that will keep him on the Cougars’ sidelines through 2023

Leading up to that extension, Sitake’s players sported T-shirts, and shared impassioned messages on social media, featuring the hashtag #EXTENDKALANI. It spoke volumes about how much Sitake’s players enjoy playing for him. 

“For Kalani, it is more than just football. I am just happy for him and happy for his family. We love coach Kalani and everything he stands for.” — Khyiris Tonga

“For Kalani, it is more than just football,” defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga said after Sitake signed his contract extension. “I am just happy for him and happy for his family. We love coach Kalani and everything he stands for.”

The Cougars are showing how much they enjoy playing for Sitake by the way they’ve performed on the field this season. Right now, in this campaign marked by the pandemic, BYU (4-0) is unbeaten and ranked No. 14 in the country as it faces Houston Friday night. 

Athletic director Tom Holmoe has been impressed with the way Sitake has guided the program during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Asked to assess Sitake’s job performance during the pandemic, Holmoe answered, “Excellent. Excellent. I think it takes a personality like Kalani’s. He’s very patient and he’s very personable and he’s very communicative with his guys. And this is a situation where, in all of college athletics, starting last March, when the NCAA tournament was canceled, and then all the sports were canceled, his focus of attention was: Which coaches can concentrate on the relationships with the players? Because there’s not going to be practice, there’s not going to be games, it’s going to be so unusual and atypical. Kalani’s taken, from that time period, missed spring practice and all the other things, day by day by day and he’s brought them to this point.”

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Sitake has tried to follow in Edwards’ footsteps as a coach, especially in the way he interacts with his players. 

During the spring of 2000, Edwards presented Sitake, a fullback, with the opportunity to help coach while Sitake was dealing with an injury and couldn’t participate in spring practices. 

“He gave players a lot of power to influence the culture, to give feedback and ask opinions,” Sitake recalled. “I was able to help people. It was such a cool situation for me. LaVell established a culture where players and coaches had this cool interaction. It was almost like we were peers.

“We have a different dynamic here. We have guys that are more mature, that (have) gone through a lot in life — some are married and fathers. We were treated like grown men. Part of that is giving players opportunities to lead and to speak.”

Doman, who was Edwards’ final starting quarterback, spent almost a decade as a BYU assistant coach under Bronco Mendenhall. He has an uncommon perspective of Sitake’s job. 

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“These past four years have been the hardest four years ever at BYU for so many reasons,” he said. “They’ve been dealt an extremely challenging hand in recruiting, the schedules that they’re playing, the requirement that is a necessity at BYU for what it represents. Because of the young men today that are available to BYU — now they’re not getting them all —  the players that are available to them, they have every chance to be a team that can win every game every year because they have access to some really talented kids that can fit at BYU.

“The requirements to get them all there and to get the right mixture of those, that’s hard,” he continued. “Kalani’s having to juggle that all of the time. To be able to put the right mixture together has been really challenging for them to figure that out. He did not experience that (as an assistant) at Utah. He has some parameters in place at BYU that are uniquely challenging.”

“I hope he stays there for 20 years and that he’s the next LaVell. I’m proud to say that I played with him. I’m proud to say that he’s the head coach.” — Jason Scukanec

Yet Doman is confident that Sitake can guide the Cougars through those challenges and lead them back to national relevance.

“I think it’s all attainable,” Doman said. “I’ve never lost that belief.”

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Sitake was the defensive coordinator at Oregon State prior to being hired by BYU, and Scukanec had a chance to cover him there. Scukanec emphasizes that the Cougars are tougher than people realize, which is translating into success this season.

“BYU has a reputation as being returned missionaries and soft kids. We’d go on the road and people would curse at us. Those people would think it was a scary thing. I’d be like, ‘You don’t know who you’re playing here. You’re not scaring us.’ BYU plays hard,” he said. “You watch BYU’s defense play today and they’ll sock you in the mouth. I love that edge. At BYU, you need to have that edge but not go over the line. Kalani is that guy for me. He can do that.”

Sitake’s personality and style are bringing players, coaches and fans together as he works diligently to restore the glory of BYU football.

“I hope he stays there for 20 years and that he’s the next LaVell. I’m proud to say that I played with him,” Scukanec said. “I’m proud to say that he’s the head coach. He’s renewed my interest in the program and I watch a lot more now that he’s there and he makes me want to root for them.”

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