I see this move to coach at BYU as an important step in my development in this profession and I’ve come here to do my best, deliver what I can, and learn at a program that has a national reputation and great tradition. —AJ Steward
PROVO — BYU’s 10th coach, Kalani Sitake’s most recent hire, believes he can make a difference in Provo's unique environment and has left his Midwest roots to prove it.
AJ Steward is an ambitious and determined guy. It is that driving force in his life that took him from the streets of St. Louis, where he was a high school quarterback, to the University of Kansas, where he played receiver and tight end. It drove him into coaching, where he’s worked at Rice University, a reputed academic private school the past six seasons.
Steward is a man of faith. He believes he is made in the image of his Creator — that there is unlimited potential in every life; a purpose to living, benefits to working hard, satisfaction in serving others, and value in trusting in the grace of God.
“I want to be a head coach someday,” he said during a brief chat during BYU’s national letter of intent signing day event Wednesday. “I see this move to coach at BYU as an important step in my development in this profession and I’ve come here to do my best, deliver what I can, and learn at a program that has a national reputation and great tradition.”
Steward’s hire was a whirlwind affair, signed and delivered after a long search by offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. Once all parties agreed, Steward hit the ground running this past week with barely time to get oriented on what building was next to the other.
His wife Virginia is a school teacher in Houston. “She’s good to pick up and will follow me here as soon as possible,” he said.
What Steward gives Sitake is a recruiter in the most storied high school football culture in America — the state of Texas. And in Texas, one of the hottest areas for speed and skill position talent is Houston, where he just left.
What Steward also adds to is 90 years of combined coaching experience to BYU’s offensive staff. Like receivers coach Fesi Sitake and O-Line coach Ryan Pugh, Steward, 28, is a card-carrying millennial. He is eager, motivated and energetic to burn the midnight oil as a coach.
“I would say I’m a big believer in discipline. I have a quote I use all the time, 'How you do anything is how you do everything,’” said Steward.
“What I take from that is you can’t cut corners in anything. If you do cut corners in your personal life it is going to show up in other facets of your life. It’s the same thing in football. If you cut out a rep in the weight room, it’s going to show up in a game and on the field.
"That’s really my philosophy and I truly believe if you have the discipline you give yourself a chance and it doesn’t matter if you are the best guy in the room or a guy who just is scraping by to get on the field. If you discipline yourself you give yourself the best chance.”
Grimes is a native Texan. It's no wonder he rounded out his offensive staff with someone familiar with area codes 281, 713 and 972.
“Recruiting areas I’m most familiar with include the Greater Houston area, North Houston, the areas everybody else in the country goes to recruit," said Steward.
“I’ve recruited East Texas, Waco, Corpus Christi, Central Texas and College Station. My wife is from Dallas and I have family and some of my best friends live in the Dallas area.
“I am very comfortable with recruiting the entire landscape of Texas. I’ve driven back and forth across the state many times. I understand the nature and culture of Texas high school football and the relationships you need to have in order to be successful as a recruiter there.”
Steward is so new to the job he has yet to figure out what Grimes and Sitake want him to do and he is still talking shop with Grimes about BYU’s trajectory with the offense and specific recruiting target areas for him.
"I think I can help Kalani Sitake recruit athletes who can fit in and come to BYU and thrive in this environment. We haven’t talked at length about those possibilities yet, but I’m sure we will be taking advantage of those relationships as we get going,” he said.
Grimes and Steward did not know one another when the coaching search began. It was friends of friends who made connections and put them together.
“Really, he reached out to me and we got to talking and getting to know each other,” said Steward.
“We really didn’t talk much about football, which was fine for me. I didn’t get into this profession just to coach football. I think we are helping each other become better men, to grow into men. That was important to me and we really hit it off. We are very similar in our beliefs and philosophies as a coach, that it is always bigger than football in helping these young men.”
As the process of the hire took off, Steward found he had a football soul mate in Grimes.
“I am very excited to work with a coach like Grimes and his résumé speaks for itself. I’m going to be like a sponge in those meeting rooms and whatever he wants me to do in coaching running backs schematically we’ll get that done. The rest of the staff is going to help me in becoming the best I can for this school and team.”
So, as folks show Steward where to locate Legends Grille and find tunnel singing, where to buy Cougar Tails and grub on some Poly food, Steward will be embarking on a unique journey at a place like no other.
Will he make a big splash?
He’s still looking for the pool.