The upcoming season is ultra-important for BYU, and not just because the Cougars will be playing their 100th season of college football. The program is still trying to find its footing in the Big 12, after winning just two league games last year.

It’s also a pivotal year for BYU head coach Kalani Sitake, who is a respectable 61-41 in his eight seasons at the helm, but has had two non-winning seasons and is facing another extremely difficult schedule in 2024.

In December 2021, Sitake signed what athletic director Tom Holmoe called an “unprecedented contract” that will take him through the 2027 season. So his job is fairly secure, but another rough year could mean more staff shuffling, which the coach told the Deseret News a few weeks ago takes years off his life.

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“After eight seasons, considering we went from independence and are now transitioning into the Big 12, I feel like we are in a good spot,” Sitake said in a wide-ranging interview. “There is always room to get better and things to improve on. But if you are looking at the entire spectrum of the job, I feel like we are in a really good spot.”

Sitake said the program is in a “much different place” than it was when he took over in 2016 for departed coach Bronco Mendenhall, who is coming out of retirement this fall to coach the New Mexico Lobos.

“It is hard to compare now to then,” Sitake said. “I am going into my ninth year as a head coach, so that changes things, too, just being a little more experienced. And now, just having experience around me and having (defensive coordinator) Jay Hill with me, who has been a head coach for nine years, and a guy that I worked with for a decade at Utah.

“With (offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick) involved fully, and all that, I feel good about where we are at. I like the talent on our team, and the development that we can do. We just needed to go through some growing pains in year one in the Big 12, and I feel like we will be able to capitalize on that experience.”

Here are more questions that Sitake answered earlier this month in a one-on-one sit-down interview with the Deseret News. Some answers have been edited for clarity, context and length:

On the difficulty of releasing great friends Ilaisa Tuiaki and Ed Lamb two years ago, Steve Clark and Darrell Funk last year, and BYU legend Ty Detmer after his second year:

“That’s a good question. That’s really hard, because you know me well enough to know that I love those guys. And so it is always hard in this position. It is hard being a leader. When people say this is a difficult job, that is what makes it difficult, when you have to make decisions like that.

“But my obligation in this program is to the players, and the fans. That’s who I have to represent. So when things are different, and they are not going the way I would like them to, or the way I see with my expertise, and my experience, then I do know adjustments that need to be made.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake reacts on the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Sam Houston State Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
BYU coach Kalani Sitake reacts on the sidelines during a game against Sam Houston State Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Provo, Utah. Sitake will lead his team into Year No. 2 in the Big 12 this fall. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

“Sometimes they are not favorable. I don’t believe in doing what is comfortable, or what is easy. But I also hate when you have to make tough decisions that affect really good people, people that you care about. There is not one person in that group that I don’t sincerely care about. So it is tough when you have to do things like that. … It just really hurts to lose friends, too.”

On having what is perceived to be one of the hardest college football coaching jobs in the country, due to BYU’s uniqueness:

“I love my job. I grew up a little differently than probably some other guys who have had this job. This is the school I cheer for, and this is the team I wanted to play for, and I did. I played for a legend, LaVell Edwards. And then years later I get to be the head coach. This is different, but I don’t have anything to compare it to, either, as far as being a head coach.

“If you are comparing what other schools are doing, it is easy to look at it that way, that it is hard. But I have always been the kind of guy who focuses on my own thing. I have never been worried about what the others are doing, other than finding our own competitive advantage. I know it is always going to be different no matter where you are at, and how you are doing things. It doesn’t matter what the job is. I think what can be consistent can be my approach to it, and my attitude, which is, I live every day with so much appreciation and gratitude for where I am at. It took a lot of hard work from others to get me here, and I appreciate that.”

On Mark Pope taking his dream job at his alma mater, Kentucky, and if there’s a job out there for which he would leave BYU:

“Oh man, the Kansas City Chiefs. No, I am joking. I have always loved the NFL, too. So I have always been intrigued by that. … I know it is crazy, but I don’t think like that, about (another job). For me, it is like, ‘How do you put a value on all the people that you have a connection to?’ I love working around all these people.

“Is there another place that is going to give me what I get from here? I mean, my dad is here all the time. My kids love it here. I adore the fans. I love them all. Even if they don’t agree with me, or are mad at me, I understand the frustration. But I understand the passion and the joy. It is hard to compare any of that stuff. I know I just mentioned the NFL, because I am intrigued by that. But I love it here. LaVell, he had a chance to go to (the NFL) back in the day, and he turned down jobs. I think when you are looking at the value of everything, it is hard to compare anything to this.”

On whether BYU’s football program as now constituted can compete for a Big 12 title:

“I do think the college football playoff is attainable. We have no choice. That is what we are going after. But I also think there is always room to improve and room to grow. I am going to do what I can with the resources that have been given to me. But I am going to do it with a mindset of appreciation for whatever is given to me. And I will make the most of what we have. With that being said, there is also a culture and a mission of this program that has to be in alignment with what (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) wants, and what the university wants. And so we are always going to work through that.

“Sometimes, those things can’t be done in a quick move. Sometimes things take a little while when you are trying to protect the culture, trying to protect the mission of the school, and the mission of the church, especially in regards to our football program. There have been a lot of times when things have happened slower than what people are expecting. It is hard to tell people to be patient in an impatient world. But I know that doing it right is better than doing it fast. And so however long it takes, we will attain it.”

On if BYU is better positioned now to get to the expanded college football playoffs:

“The path to getting to the playoffs is the best it has ever been for BYU. In the past, you drop a game to anybody, or you play a bad one, you are not going to get into a BCS or a New Year’s Six (bowl game). So that was always hard, when the guys had to play error-free just to get to their goals. It is hard to do that when you are trying to play motivated ball. Now, there are a lot of things to play for, and we have a lot of people to thank for that, being in the Big 12. BYU has such an amazing reputation, because of the tradition, the legacy and the legends that have come through this place.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake greets fans before the start of their NCAA college football game against Texas Tech Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
BYU coach Kalani Sitake greets fans before the start of the Cougars' game against Texas Tech Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Provo, Utah. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

“And the fanbase has been big time from the very beginning. This has been a power conference fanbase. And now, even though it was the first year for me and the players in the Big 12, it is actually the first year for the entire fanbase to be in a power conference, and they are loving it.

“My job is to keep doing what I can with the resources that are given. If you give me more, I can work with more. But if I am only going to get a recruit that comes because of that (NIL or similar), then we are not recruiting right. So we have to be able to be innovative in creative ways to show people that this is the right place to be, that other recruits can see themselves growing and transitioning from a young man to an adult, and this is the place they want to be.”

Switching back to this year’s team, what’s the latest on the starting quarterback competition?:

“I am comfortable with not naming a starter because no one has earned it yet. Now, we have seen flashes of some really good improvement from both Gerry (Bohanon) and Jake (Retzlaff). But until someone takes the spot, I am not going to name a starter until that happens. That’s not how it works.

“I do like the way they are leading the team. I know people have said the quarterback battle can divide the team. No, it won’t. What they need to realize is that we need a good, strong quarterback room to win, and that is from top to bottom.

“Whoever wins the starting spot, we need to make sure that everybody is progressing. That’s gotta be the key. And to the credit of the guys who are battling for the starting spot, and the guys who are in that room, it has been so good, so positive. I am excited to see those guys get out there and play.”

On what are his biggest concerns for the program in 2024:

“I think the big issue for me is to keep protecting the culture of the team. When you are talking about the stress levels, I stress out about keeping the guys healthy. When I say healthy, it is not just physical health. There is the mental side of things, and just keeping them happy. So physically healthy, mentally healthy, spiritually healthy. All those things. And focusing on the young men.

BYU Cougars football head coach Kalani Sitake talks to journalists after practice at Brigham Young University in Provo on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“But I do know that I don’t have to do it alone. The thing I do appreciate is that I have a really good coaching staff and support staff that can get it done. Granted, I think the administration has bought into that as well, in terms of mental health and in terms of the resources that are available for our players in the physical, mental and spiritual side of it. It has been amazing.”

Finally, on what he does to get away from the daily pressures of being a Division I head football coach:

“I don’t watch marathons, I can tell you that. I like doing different things. I love watching people compete. I watched this thing on TV, it was like a pillow fight. It is a good thing I have a job. Otherwise I think I would be consumed watching these weird sports. I just like seeing people compete, and just like watching guys play golf. Anything that has to do with competing.

“That’s why I like the cooking shows, and all that. I like ‘Survivor,’ and the reality shows. ‘Amazing Race,’ all those cool shows. So now that they are all there, I can binge watch it whenever I want. Those are fun things. I love watching ‘Jeopardy!’ Me and Fesi (Sitake) are big ‘Jeopardy!’ fans. I like the trivia part of it, and the strategy of trying to find the Daily Double. Weird things like that. I like learning different things and new things all the time. I also like hanging out with my family. I got a baby now, so starting all over with that. I just enjoy being around my kids, my wife, my family, my dad.”

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