BYU had only one loss during the 2020 football season, but now the losses are coming in bunches.
The Cougars lost Jeff Grimes, the offensive coordinator, to Baylor.
All of which means this is a pivotal time for Kalani Sitake, BYU’s popular head coach. Sitake gets to truly prove himself, with a legitimate schedule, a shakeup on his coaching staff, and of course recruiting. Next fall we will know more about where the BYU football program is heading into the sixth year of Sitake’s tenure as coach.
He’s had two successful seasons, but both come with asterisks. In Sitake’s first year as head coach, the Cougars were 9-4, but he was playing with talent he inherited from the Bronco Mendenhall era, which included NFL standouts Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams.
The Cougars were 4-9 in Sitake’s second season, one of the school’s worst in the last 50 years.
This was followed by consecutive mediocre 7-6 seasons.
Then there was the 2020 season, which resulted in an 11-1 record, a top-10 ranking much of the season and a lopsided bowl victory. The Cougars came within one yard of a perfect season, but it also comes with another caveat and one everyone acknowledges: They played a weak schedule (ranked 106th in the country) forced on them by the pandemic.
So it’s difficult to determine where Sitake and the program stand. He will begin his sixth season in the fall by fielding a team that was entirely assembled by his staff. Assuming the pandemic restrictions are lifted, he’ll play a schedule that is considerably stronger. At this point, the schedule includes five Pac-12 teams — Arizona, Utah, Arizona State (the first three games), Washington State and USC — plus Boise State and Baylor.
Sitake has had some rocky times and some learning moments, right from the start of his head coaching debut. He began with a coaching staff in which eight of the 10 coaches were former BYU players. It was celebrated as a reunion of former stars and an oddity, which it was (most schools have a couple of their former players on staff, but rarely more).
It was a nice story. It also was a mistake and one that should have been recognized immediately.
Whether some or all of the original staff was pushed onto Sitake by school administrators isn’t known (only rumored), but it never had a chance. Two of the 10 coaches came straight from the high school ranks (including the offensive coordinator), three from FCS schools, two of them were no longer coaches, and two had previously been let go by BYU.
Five of those coaches were gone after two seasons.
Coaches aren’t given a lot of time and those were wasted seasons for Sitake.
Things immediately improved when Grimes was hired, producing three straight winning seasons and a cumulative record of 25-13. For the most part the Cougars won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were supposed to lose (some exceptions being wins over Wisconsin and USC and losses to Toledo and Hawaii).
Anyway, now Grimes and Mateos are gone. Replacements who can make this a seamless transition are critical and Sitake thinks he’s found one of them. The new OC is Aaron Roderick, who oversaw the passing game under Grimes for three seasons. Before that, he was Utah’s co-offensive coordinator two different times — in 2010 and again from 2015-16. He was demoted after the first stint and fired after the second one after a dozen years on the Utah staff, but don’t hold that against him; the Utes fired OCs almost annually for a decade and that included many proven coaches. Sitake and Roderick were both hired as Utah coaches in 2005 and served on the staff together for 10 years.
Good programs recover from coaching and graduation losses. The rival Utes have had 14 winning seasons during Kyle Whittingham’s 16-year stay as head coach, which saw myriad coaching and player changes. The Cougars established the same consistency under Mendenhall.
With all the ups and downs that Sitake and the Cougars have endured the past five years, there’s still much more to do to establish themselves as a top-25 program.