During a seven-year stretch from 1979-85, BYU won a total of 77 football games, reaching 11-plus wins in all but one season (1982) under longtime head coach LaVell Edwards, who went on to coach the program until 2000.
Even with all the team’s success — including the undefeated, national title-winning campaign in ’84 — a little boy not even 10 years old who claimed to be one of the Cougars’ biggest fans found different reasons to complain about the coaching and the players.
That same little boy is now BYU’s newest head coach.
Oregon State defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake officially became the program’s 14th head coach on Monday, replacing Bronco Mendenhall, who left for the Virginia vacancy after 11 years in Provo. Sitake grew up in the early 1980s as a BYU superfan, played for the Cougars in 1994 and from 1997-2000, and served as a graduate assistant on Gary Crowton’s staff in 2002.
“I was doing that when I was eight years old,” Sitake said during his introductory press conference. “I was able to voice my opinion and (complain about the coaches). I know all the names and the guys. I grew up a BYU fan from day one. Everybody that bleeds blue, that’s how you live. Football player or not, you want to be involved. My job isn’t to tell (fans) what to do, because I was one of those guys. My job is to make sure they rise and shout.”
Sitake, who spent 2005-14 as an assistant for archrival Utah, has a tremendous challenge awaiting him as he takes on the first head coaching gig of his young career. BYU averaged 9.0 wins under Mendenhall during his 11-year tenure, reaching double-digits in the win column five different times.
Sustaining an identity as one of the premier non-Power Five programs—BYU is one of three remaining Independent FBS members (Notre Dame and Army are the other two)—is an absolute must for Sitake, and the expectations to win nine or 10 games a season won’t go away just because there’s a new face leading the team.
Nonetheless, Sitake—a product of the program and potential fan/alumni favorite—is up for the challenge and is excited to spread awareness of the uniqueness to the BYU brand.
“There’s a lot of young men that go through this place and it changes their life,” Sitake said. “A lot of guys here and throughout the world experienced what I did. I’m going to build on that. This is a special place, it’s unique. Good things can happen for you if you come to this school.
“Recruits, get ready, because I’m living proof,” he added. “I played here. I lived this life. I met my wife here, made brothers for life here. This is a great place if you want to be a part of that.”
Sitake has spent the majority of his coaching career as a defensive assistant, holding coordinator duties for Utah from 2009-14 and Oregon State in 2015. The Utes ended with the Mountain West Conference’s No. 3 and 2 unit in scoring defense, respectively, in his first two years on the job. Utah led the Pac-12 (20.2 points allowed per game) in its first season as a member in 2011, and finished 7th (25.1), 8th (28.0), and 4th (24.9) before moving on to Corvallis.
In what was the start to a serious rebuilding project, Sitake’s Oregon State defense ranked last in the Pac-12 in 2015 (and 115th nationally), surrendering 37.0 points per contest. Consider that an aberration; the Beavers could have had Nick Saban as their defensive coordinator this fall, and the result wouldn’t have been much different, as half of the two-deep roster consisted of underclassmen.
Sitake will bring his defensive philosophies to BYU in hopes of reviving a unit that’s regressed over the last two years after finishing inside the nation’s top 25 in scoring from 2011-13 (No. 3 in 2012). And though he admits defense is his strong suit, he wants to be involved in how the offense operates, as well.
“I am a defensive-minded coach, but if you’re a great fan, you know I played on the offensive side as a fullback,” said Sitake. “I have an offensive mind. It helped me as a defensive coach. I plan on being on both sides and see how we establish staff, in terms of who’s making play-calls. That’ll be worked out in the next little bit. My goal is to get the best recruiters out there first.”
Since Oregon State didn’t qualify for a bowl game and BYU already played in its postseason matchup with Utah in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl last Saturday (a 35-28 loss), Sitake can get a head start with his new responsibilities—starting with adding on to a recruiting class that only has 14 members and ranks No. 54 in the country.
From there, it will only get easier to determine whether BYU made a “home” run hire with its decision to hand the keys to someone that has Cougar blood coursing through his veins, with an emphasis on the home.