Kalani Sitake speaks with players in 2020. (Preston Crawley)

‘Sitake culture’ in full force for BYU football

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the October 2021 edition of The Daily Universe Magazine.

Nearly six seasons deep into Kalani Sitake’s tenure as head coach, Sitake has led BYU football back to national relevance through a culture of “love and learn.”

Speaking to media members following a practice in August, BYU football head coach Kalani Sitake was asked about his thoughts on the team’s new, state-of-the-art locker room.

“I just like that the players can charge their phones while their lockers are closed and secure,” Sitake said.

While brief, the explanation reflected a great deal about Sitake’s focus for the program as a players-first coach, even in seemingly trivial matters such as phone chargers.

Backing the players comes easily for Sitake, who stood in their same shoes during his own playing days at BYU in the late 1990s. Sitake said that the opening days of fall training camp brought flashbacks to practices years ago when he played for legendary head coach LaVell Edwards. While the former fullback misses playing, Sitake feels deeply grateful to be “living a dream.”

“I get to drive by the stadium every day when I go to work and every night when I go home. I can’t believe that I’m here and get to do this,” Sitake said. “I was a BYU fan, I got to play here for Lavell Edwards, and now I’m the head coach. I’m so thankful for everything that’s happened in my life to this point.”

Upon Sitake’s hiring in December 2015, Sitake pledged to support his players, create a family atmosphere in the locker room, surround himself with quality coaches and demand excellence. Now nearly six seasons deep in the Sitake era, it’s clear that his vision has finally transformed into a visible culture.

“Kalani has this vision of recreating BYU to its prime, and I think it’s right at its peak,” quarterback Jacob Conover said. “He’s doing an amazing job. He’s doing a great job hiring these coaches who want to be here not for the money but because they want to help make BYU one of the top programs in the country.”

The Cougars are 43-26 under Sitake’s direction, trending upward in each of the past three seasons before skyrocketing to a No. 11 overall national ranking and powerhouse status last year, only to follow up in the current campaign with a 5-0 start and top 10 spot in the polls to make BYU football as relevant as it ever has been. His Cougars have boasted dramatic upset victories against the likes of Wisconsin, Tennessee, USC and Arizona State in front of national audiences. He’s won three bowl games, hasn’t lost in overtime and is 25-10 at LaVell’s house.

It’s an impressive resume, but Sitake’s success has clearly cultivated from responding to adversity. After dropping the season opener to Utah in 2019, Sitake fell to 5-11 lifetime against Power 5 opponents and, most importantly, 1-9 in “rivalry” games. Since then, Sitake’s Cougars have won four of five against Power 5 foes and are undefeated against Utah, Utah State and Boise State, with a memorable streak-buster against the Utes in Provo on Sept. 11 and an Aggie smackdown in Logan on Oct. 1.

“I’m not immune from making mistakes, but I’m going to learn and try to get better to focus on these young men and help them achieve their dreams,” Sitake said.

Many dreams have come true for plenty of Cougars in Sitake’s tenure, with a dozen players sent to the NFL just last season alone. Most notably, Sitake pirated quarterback Zach Wilson from Boise State to sign with BYU, made a daring midseason switch to start the young freshman in 2018, and eventually saw Wilson blossom into an elite gunslinger and #2 overall draft pick.

Even earlier than that, Sitake immediately proved his worth as a players-first coach upon his hiring by recruiting stars Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams to stay in Provo for a final campaign, despite opportunities to transfer elsewhere during the shuffling regime as one coaching staff left and another arrived. Now accomplished NFL veterans, it’s hard to say where Hill and Williams might be today had they not been persuaded by Sitake to stay home.

“Coach Sitake made football about us, and I really appreciated that,” Hill told the Daily Universe in 2018. “I felt like he was genuine and that every decision he made was to help us as a team and he was genuine in taking care of us.”

The Cougars opened Sitake’s sixth season at the helm with a solid victory against Arizona on Sept. 4, a callback to Sitake’s debut back in 2016 facing the same Wildcats. Kicker Jake Oldroyd, who drilled a game-winning field goal that night, is one of the few players from the ’16 team still on the roster today, and credits Sitake for his growth from the beginning while maintaining his core principles.

“He’s always been players first, fans first, taking care of his staff, and just really personable and charitable,” Oldroyd said. “The only thing that’s really changed is his confidence. After seeing some of the success he’s had and the support he’s gotten from players and fans, he’s more confident in himself, believes in us and knows that we can achieve amazing things as a team.”

Sitake’s relationship with the players is quite unique, with offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick commending Sitake for his ability to communicate and collaborate.

“Players and coaches are equal participants in the meeting room, and our players have a lot of say in what we do,” Roderick said. “There’s a lot to it, but it comes from Kalani. Our coaches don’t just stand in front of the room lecturing and hope the guys are listening. It’s a very interactive way of teaching and our players are heavily involved in the meetings.”

For the unselfish Sitake, it all comes down to giving the players opportunities to lead and feel “ownership” of the team.

“I want the players to feel empowered and find innovative ways to get better as a program, and that means giving them opportunities to lead,” Sitake said. “I want everyone on this team to feel like they can be leaders… You don’t have to earn a starting spot to be a leader, you just have to lead by example and stand up for what’s right to defend the culture of this team.”

Sitake’s support of the players was instrumental in authoring one of the most landmark off-the-field developments in school history, when Built Brands stepped in to sponsor scholarships for all of the team’s walk-ons in August. During the first week of fall camp, Sitake lamented that he wished every player on the roster could be on scholarship. Less than 10 days later, Built helped turn his wish into a reality.

“When you feel the love Kalani has for these boys, how can you not want to be around that? How can you not want to be involved with that cause?” Built CEO Nick Greer said.

As year six of the Sitake era charges forward, the Cougars look to continue climbing the national rankings and possibly crash a New Year’s Six bowl, but Sitake knows that his true legacy as a head coach goes farther than mere wins and losses.

“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to grow, learn and become a better person because of (BYU),” Sitake said. “I just want our players to feel that same impact in their lives and do for them what LaVell did for me.”

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