Sizing up Sitake: Comparing his first season to other BYU football coaches

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Kalani Sitake’s first season at BYU is over and the reaction is in. A year after replacing Bronco Mendenhall as the head coach of BYU football, his initial year is in the record books.

Replacing Mendenhall — the man that led the Cougars for over a decade — was no easy task. But from day one, Sitake had the backing of the BYU athletic administration.

“He is an outstanding leader and coach, an exceptional recruiter and knows BYU through and through,” BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe said when he introduced Sitake as the new head coach. “We look forward to having Kalani build on the great tradition of BYU football.”

Sitake became the first Tongan football coach in collegiate football history, but also accomplished much more. He led the Cougars to a 9-4 record, giving BYU its twelfth-straight bowl-game appearance. But Sitake didn’t just make the Poinsettia Bowl. He and the Cougars won the game 24-21 over Wyoming.

Sitake was one of only six coaches in their first year as an FBS head coach to finish with a winning record in 2016.

“We hit some adversity early in the year, and the guys stuck with it and they believe in what we’re doing and believe in each other,” head coach Sitake said after the regular season finale. “The leaders led and here’s the result: 8-4. Obviously there are some things we would like to fix. We have a few weeks to get ready to make sure that we’re ready to go for that bowl game.”

With this amount of success in his first season, Sitake’s first year compares favorably with other first-year Cougar coaches:

LaVell Edwards (1972-2000)

LaVell Edwards walks off the field at Rice Eccles Stadium after his final game. The Cougars won 34-27. (BYU Photo)
LaVell Edwards walks off the field at Rice Eccles Stadium after his final game. The Cougars won 34-27. (BYU Photo)

Record: 257–101–3 (71.6% winning pct)

First season: 7-4, (prior to the bowl game era)

Low point: 5-6 (1973)

High point: 14-1, ranked AP No. 1, national champions (1984)

LaVell Edwards redefined BYU football completely, setting the Cougars as a national force and winning the school’s only national championship. The head coach had a few rough seasons to start his career, but had so much success that Cougar Stadium was renamed after Edwards following his retirement.

Gary Crowton (2001-2005)

FTB @ SDSU 10/27/01 Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU
Gary Crowton with LaVell Edwards before a 2001 football game. (BYU Photo)

Record: 26–23 (53.1% winning pct)

First season: 12-2, Liberty Bowl loss to Louisville

Low point: 4-8 (2003)

High point: 12-2 first season

Gary Crowton showed promise in his first season as the BYU head football coach, leading the team to six more wins than the previous year. Crowton led the Cougars to a 12-1 regular season, but finished with a blowout loss to Hawaii and another crushing loss to Louisville in the Liberty Bowl. His legacy spiraled downward after a horrendous sexual assault scandal involving members of the football team.

Bronco Mendenhall (2005-2015)

Ari Davis
Bronco Mendenhall and Tom Holmoe address the media during a press conference in 2015. (Ari Davis)

Record: 99-43 (69.7% winning pct)

First season: 6-6, Las Vegas Bowl loss to California 

Low point: 6-6 (2005)

High point: 11-2, ranked AP No. 12, Las Vegas Bowl win (2007)

Mendenhall started out 6-6 in his first season, but things only went up from there. Mendenhall took BYU football to a bowl game in every year he was head coach and picked up a huge victory over No. 3 Oklahoma in 2009.

Kalani Sitake (2016 – present)

Ari Davis
Kalani Sitake and other coaches celebrate after freshman Jake Oldroyd’s game-winning field goal against Arizona. (Ari Davis)

Record: 9-4 (69.2% winning pct)

First season: 9-4, Poinsettia Bowl victory

Sitake stayed calm under a tough schedule and high fan expectations bearing down on him.  He navigated an up-and-down season and won the Communicator of the Year Award at the 2016 Golden Spike Awards ceremony. But for Sitake, it’s never about himself.

“I think I get too much credit,” Sitake said. “The coaching staff, the players, they’ve made it work. To have a fan base that we have and the support that we have has been unbelievable. I really, really enjoyed the season.”

Whether or not Sitake thinks he gets too much credit, the players and the coaches love the new head coach.

“I think Kalani (Sitake) is literally the definition of a player’s coach,” quarterback Taysom Hill said at the beginning of the season. “Everything he does is to benefit us as a team and as players. We’re all super competitive guys and want to win. But then there’s this additional value that you’re playing for because you want to take care of your coach because he’s taking care of you.”

Time will tell if Sitake becomes one of the great football coaches in BYU football history, but the future appears  to be bright for the Cougars.

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