PROVO — BYU's football program is on a bubble right now with Kalani Sitake. At least that's how things are viewed from the outside.
BYU either offers Sitake a contract extension and a vote of confidence as soon as possible, or lets things run out and deals with the results.
But the time to extend is now.
The university should extend Sitake as soon as possible for the sake of continuity, recruiting and confidence. After a disastrous four-win season in 2017, Sitake made hard changes, produced a lopsided bowl victory, and led the team to three more wins than the previous year.
Heading into the 2019 season that will feature home games with USC, Washington, Boise State and Utah, the program needs continuity and consistency by a vote of confidence by the overlords.
Entering this upcoming season with a wink and a handshake is no way to fight a real uphill battle with this schedule. The time to do something about it is now.
You could look at a new offensive staff, brought in after sacrificing a Heisman Trophy winner on the altar of change. Subsequently, that offense did make big strides, even after changing its scheme several times mid-season because of injuries and a QB change.
You could point to the euphoria of that road win in Madison over a Wisconsin team ranked in the top 10 at the time, and the top-25 ranking that followed.
You could point to the daring but prickly decision of replacing a senior quarterback midseason, how it was handled and managed, and taking it on the chin with a loss at home to Northern Illinois — perhaps because of that change. But the long-term benefits showed results in the final game at Albertsons Stadium in Boise.
You could point to the defense making significant progress, going from the nation’s 51st-ranked unit in 2017 to No. 18 in 2018 after making staff changes on that side of the ball as well. Other statistical numbers showed an equally big turn around: 44th in rush defense to 27th; 67th in pass yards defense to 30th; 105th in team pass efficiency defense to 24th; and 46th in scoring defense to 26th in 2018.
You could counter all that with dwindling attendance at games, a concern for sure. So is the loss of home games, a negative trend that must be corrected.
But you could also point to the school partnering with ESPN for 8:15 p.m. kickoffs that put a burden on Salt Lake and Davis County fans who have traditionally bought tickets and made the trek to LaVell Edwards Stadium for ages.
These fans, now older, are saying that’s a pretty big ask. You could also point to escalating ticket prices for an inventory that includes the likes of Savannah State and Wagner. All of these challenges are on the school, not Sitake.
Nobody can discount the fact that if interest in the program takes a dive, any coach is going to pay the price with his job. That’s the nature of the business.
But coaching at BYU isn’t just any other business and a football coach at BYU is required to be much, much more. Just ask Bronco Mendenhall.
Two observations make the case.
First, Sitake’s strength is that he’s a people person. His idol is the legendary LaVell Edwards. He models his approach after Edwards. Thing is, he started his head coaching career without enough Edwards-like help around him, guys who carried huge roles for enforcing discipline.
He was too trusting, too forgiving, too much a friend, the good-old pal. It didn’t work. Players messed up his locker room, slept in the players' lounge, helped themselves to gaming console remotes, took advantage of policies. This was on him.
Sitake changed his approach, drew a line, and it affected the culture within months. It became the foundation of this past season. But that work isn’t finished.
After the four-win season, and perhaps during it, he began sifting and weeding out players that were not fit for the program culturally. He shifted his recruiting to steer away from potential academic and honor code risks, actually turning prospects away. There are many serial code breakers who simply will not be in his locker room again.
The word is getting around. Recruiters recruiting against BYU are telling prospects, “You are not good enough (not in a football sense) to attend BYU.” He has to work with that too. That he’s made this change should give him credit in the BYU Board of Trustee bank, for it is the standard it wants in a coach, perhaps more than wins.
Second, the school extended the contract of Dave Rose the same week an NCAA committee recommended probation, which included vacating more than 40 wins, and other penalties. It was a signal that the school was behind Rose and disagreed with the penalties.
If things at BYU are even in the realm of being balanced on scales of some kind of justice with lofty ideals of morality, isn’t a similar reward in store for Sitake and his efforts to turn around BYU’s fortunes? Especially after BYU basketball lost to Weber State, UNLV, San Diego State — all teams rated far lower than the Cougars?
Sitake is a passionate, devoted coach whom BYU hired without any head coaching experience. The weight of that is on the school. How patient is the school willing to be to help the coach grow? The learning curve at BYU is huge, as Mendenhall can attest. Now that Sitake has some of that experience at a place like no other, if he progresses, isn’t it worth a vote of confidence so he and his staff aren’t heading into a season as lame ducks?
Why not ride the progression curve instead of starting over. The candidate list is small. If there is a hint of not sticking with him, are the university, fans, alumni and boosters willing to live with the multiple seasons of learning it takes an outsider to maneuver around BYU’s unique coaching harbor?
Maybe not.83 comments on this story
Reality is not a universe easily accepted by many in the sports world.
Look into the eyes of players on this young roster and ask them if Sitake is the man to lead them against Utah and USC this coming fall. I did in Boise. They declared without hesitation they will follow him.
Sitake now knows far more about where the mines are hidden under the surface than the day he took the job after Mendenhall left for Virginia.
This is a new year and an entirely different team than the one that stepped off the jetway after the trip to Hawaii in 2017.