PROVO — No big surprise, but Kalani Sitake enters his third season as BYU’s football coach with a different approach.
Lessons learned during a tough four-win season have led to changes in the way he’ll operate the program going forward.
Schematically, he will be more aggressive on both sides of the ball, say those who know.
Culturally, he’s implemented changes to redirect discipline and accountability. In Greek, he’s trying to fix ethos, which means spirit, character, climate, the essence of something.
The latter may deliver more dividends than the first.
Sitake started the process the Monday that BYU returned from its last game in Hawaii. In a team meeting, he addressed it in very specific terms that everyone could understand. The Cougars had to change.
Since that Monday meeting where he vowed to break stereotypes and unproductive behavior — practices that surfaced during the season — he hasn’t stopped working on a plan.
“It’s a huge emphasis,” said assistant coach Ed Lamb.
“There was an uptick in player morale in the initial coaching staff change two years ago. Bronco’s style was very businesslike and professional, and many players responded to it. You can win and be successful with that.”
It included strict by-the-book rules. Example? Bronco Mendenhall had a coach check the locker room at night, and if anything was askew or a piece of trash was on the floor, one penalty could be that the push code for the locker room door would be changed and players would have to dress for practice at home. Fear of punishment was a tool.
“And it’s certainly one way to be,” said Lamb. “But the most important thing for me is that a head coach needs to operate within their own personality. Kalani’s personality is to allow these guys to play with their passion a little bit more and have the freedom to make decisions, whether right or wrong, and to learn from the natural consequences that happen.”
That approach worked for a season with Taysom Hill and other Mendenhall-trained acolytes in the locker room.
“Well, in year one we had an incredibly dedicated, talented team that responded to that really well,” said Lamb of Sitake’s approach. Players took a liking to Sitake’s LaVell Edwards-type approach. It was fun and full of self-expression.
“In year two we had situations crop up with off-the-field trouble and more motivational troubles, and it was a real eye-opener for all of us,” said Lamb.
“We needed to find a way for Kalani to still be Kalani but still instill discipline and teach leadership. We were not interested in sitting around griping about a team that lacked leadership. It is 100 percent our job to create leaders, create discipline, to create culture. Kalani has put in some real good programs to get that done.
“If I could put it into one sentence: The communication between players and about where we see them as coaches has improved dramatically, and players are responding nicely to those changes.”
Did the rank and file kind of take advantage of a trust and personality type in 2017, one that led to a seven-game losing streak?
“Absolutely,” said Lamb. “Not that we as a coaching staff didn’t have a fault with that, but that was absolutely the case. We underestimated the negative impact that could happen, so we took a dip in motivation and with a few injuries mixed in, we did not do the job needed as a coaching staff to deal with it.
“So Kalani has worked tremendously hard and put in a lot of time on that issue and right now the leadership is as high and strong as anytime I’ve been here. I’m really excited the way they’re working, the way players are communicating with us, the way we are communicating with them. It is something that is working and was lacking.”
Was Sitake’s hiring of almost half a new staff plus SEC veteran Jeff Grimes a part of the turnaround? Was putting different personalities in the staff trenches part of the remedy?
“I think so,” said Lamb. “A lot has been said about our previous staff, that some of them lacked college coaching experience. I don’t know how much effect that had on it.
“But when Jeff Grimes was hired, he looked for replacements and he was interested in guys who had taken his path and worked their way through colleges the same way he had over the years.”
Lamb said one thing he sees right now is that BYU’s new coaches are a lot harder on their players. “They don’t quite have the relationship with players that our previous staff had, and there will be challenges with that, but good things may come of it as well.
“In the end, I loved the previous coaches we had and I love these new hires. But the bottom line is production. There is no point in making a judgment right now as to whether or not it is working, that comes on game day where it’s our job. It’s these coaches’ job to lead our players to victory.”169 comments on this story
In 2017, plenty could be argued about BYU’s schemes on both offense and defense. A lot more could be debated about personnel, injuries, schedule, attitude and passion.
But culture is the engine in football; it counts as the tread that hits the road.
If you believe Lamb, a former head coach at Southern Utah who has put half a dozen players in the NFL, Sitake faced this aspect of 2017 failures and did so without flinching or shrinking from the price paid.
He had to.
Will his moves lead to success?
In spring, we will be sure to hear players talk about it.
Nobody can really tell until the Cougars travel to Tucson and the guy in stripes flips the coin.