Rarely does a head coach new to a program inherit stability and success.
Sure, successful Group of Five programs lose coaches to their Power Five counterparts with regularity, but a newcomer continuing on the path of his predecessor is far from guaranteed. Fragility is the result of the resource gap at that level of FBS competition.
How often will a new head coach take over a program with both a track record for success, and the resources to ensure it continues?
Here’s what’s even more unlikely about the case of BYU newcomer Kalani Sitake: He steps into a ready-made winner in his first-ever head-coaching position.
Saturday against Arizona, Sitake makes his debut as BYU’s 14th head coach, and just the fourth since 1972. Legendary LaVell Edwards accounts for most of that time, leading the Cougars from 1972 through 2000, and in that time, he reached a benchmark not seen before or since.
Bronco Mendenhall may not have matched Edwards’ tenure in either duration or wins, but his 11 seasons in Provo were solid: five double-digit-win campaigns, three with 11 wins, a bowl appearance every year, and never a losing record.
Mendenhall guided BYU through the rocky terrain of an independent schedule, too. While the Cougars reached the 10-win milestone just once since going independent — the first year, 2011 — the eight- and nine-win standard established while playing an ambitious schedule places BYU on favorable ground in the college football landscape.
BYU’s 2016 schedule may be its most ambitious since going independent, but also one of its more favorable. The Cougars’ opener against Arizona is one of three dates with Pac-12 teams, and the only road game — the restarted Holy War with rival Utah — is just a stone’s throw from Provo.
UCLA goes to LaVell Edwards Stadium, and BYU plays Arizona at Glendale Stadium, where early indicators suggest more Cougar fans than ‘Cat supporters in the house.
That Pac-12 trio sets the stage for a docket that features six Power Five opponents; a Cincinnati program with an impressive resume of its own over the last eight years; and Boise State, one of this season’s early favorites to nab a New Year’s Six bowl bid.
Sitake’s first team has the stage on which to make an impression. More importantly, it has the players necessary to ensure that impression’s a positive one.
With seven returning offensive starters, and eight on defense, Sitake inherits one of the most experienced teams in college football. A longtime assistant at BYU’s rival Utah, Sitake’s chops as a defensive coach will immediately be put to use with that veteran defense.
The Cougars allowed a respectable 22.8 points per game in 2015, No. 34 in the nation. Building around proven commodities Fred Warner and Kai Nacua, Sitake’s influence could elevate BYU on that side of the ball, enabling the Cougars to become one of the stingiest teams in the nation.
The other side of the ball is the mystery, however — it’s the factor likely to determine if BYU maximizes its potential in 2016 or falls short of it.
Sitake faced one of the inherent pitfalls for any first-time head coach: forming a staff. It’s a new process for first-timers, and assistants won’t have the theoretic Rolodex nor the clout of an established head coach.
Sitake himself has never coached on the offensive side, save a brief stint as a line and tight end coach at Southern Utah more than a decade ago. Utah had a revolving door of offensive staff in Sitake’s tenure, and his stint under Gary Andersen was brief.
Hiring BYU legend Ty Detmer to coordinate the offense was a gamble. Detmer’s Heisman Trophy win in 1990 marked one of those aforementioned milestones in Edwards’ tenure, and the Detmer name carries obvious clout in the BYU football world.
In the coaching world, though, Detmer is a relative novice. He was head coach of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, where last season his team won its divisional title. The Episcopal Cup isn’t quite a Texas state title, and it’s a long way from overseeing the offense of a potential Top-25 program.
Meanwhile, the bevy of talent Sitake and his new staff inherited includes two outstanding quarterbacks: Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum. The experienced and explosive Hill got the nod as the Week 1 starter, the first major decision of Sitake’s tenure.
How that choice shakes out, and Detmer’s ability to impart his own BYU quarterbacking knowledge to the 26-year-old Hill, will play a central part in shaping the Cougars’ season.
The pieces and the platform for Sitake are ready-made for a huge splash to kick off his head-coaching career. The flip side of that? Falling short of expectations sets a sour tone in shaping the long-term direction for BYU football.