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Kalani Sitake talks BYU football, coaching during a pandemic and his gospel-driven goals

There’s a lot of stuff bouncing about Kalani Sitake’s brain at the moment.

Yes, there’s an ongoing pandemic — but he’s still recruiting future Cougars and connecting with his players and staff while practicing social distancing. 

Some of his athletes are returning from missions, others are departing. And he’s counting down the days to the fast-approaching season-opener — at least for now — against rival Utah.

But when Brigham Young University’s football coach recently spoke to the Church News, his initial thought was of a matter closer to home.

“My oldest daughter [Sadie] turned 16 during the quarantine. That’s the dating age — but now she can’t date, which is frustrating for her. 

“But as a father,” he said, laughing, “I couldn’t be happier.”

Time passes quickly for fathers and football coaches. But given the 44-year-old’s boyish energy (check out his quarantine #throwbackdancebattle tweets), it’s easy to forget Sitake’s been at the helm of BYU’s football squad for almost half a decade following 15 years as an assistant coach/defensive coordinator with several other college programs.

“I’m honored to be the coach at BYU and to be given the responsibility of establishing a football program that will make our fans, the members of our Church and our Church leaders proud,” he said.

Replay Sitake’s YouTube celebrations immediately following BYU’s upset wins over, say, USC or Wisconsin. It’s clear the former Cougar fullback loves to win football games.

“But winning off the field is much more important,” he said, adding that there’s joy in watching young men become adults while representing the Church’s flagship university on the gridiron.

“Even in the midst of competition, it’s important for others to know how much we respect and honor the opportunity to represent the Church and our school.”

Relationships immune to viruses

Sitake admits it’s weird “not to have the guys around and in the weight room” on an early-May afternoon. But he’s been inspired by how his players are “handling their business” and locking in on their fitness and classwork. 

“It makes me feel good that they are part of the culture that we have at this school — and, really, within our religion — that allows them to be trusted to go about doing their work.”

The unprecedented events of the past few COVID-19 months have reaffirmed Sitake’s belief in relationships. With a roster of some 120 players, it’s impossible for a head coach to interact with each one daily. But assistant coaches and teammates, he said, are stepping up to make sure everyone’s being looked out for.

Head coach Kalani Sitake talks to reporters after Brigham Young University football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020.

Head coach Kalani Sitake talks to reporters after Brigham Young University football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020.

Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“Having our players take ownership of this team and meeting the challenge to keep in touch with the other guys has made my job a lot easier,” he said. “It’s in line with what we do in the Church and on missions. It’s in line with what’s already been established in the gospel: you minister and take care of each other.

“Even during a pandemic, relationships can thrive.”

Coaching the Cougs: a ‘unique’ occupation

There are well over 100 Division 1 college football teams, but coaching at BYU is like no other. 

All of Sitake’s players — from the starting quarterback to the third-string long-snapper — are expected to follow the same honor code as every other student enrolled at Church-owned schools. That surely precludes some top high school players from considering BYU.

Meanwhile, Sitake and the coaching staff must prove adroit at navigating the swift stream of missionaries coming and going every season. Scholarship limits must be managed. Ever-shifting rosters demand balance.

But even while acknowledging such challenges — some call them obstacles — football-loving BYU fans still expect the Cougars to win.

Highlighting “those things that make us unique” is part of the recruiting process, said Sitake.  

Distinctly BYU elements such as the honor code “line up with so many people that want to represent Christ, … and they are not just Church members. There are also others that see the benefit of how our school is set up.”

For some Cougar athletes who are not Latter-day Saints, he added, competing for a gospel-anchored, stone-cold-sober school such as BYU “is a huge sigh of relief.”

Sitake is also thankful to lead a program where coaches, players and recruits “can talk about the gospel and Jesus Christ in the open.”

Athletic concepts such as competing and winning in a physical sport need not conflict with anchoring gospel principles.

 But “winning at all costs” is not an option, he added. The gospel teaches a person — including  D1 football coaches — to do one’s best, while humbly acknowledging that “you need help and that you can’t do it alone.”

Head coach Kalani Sitake talks to players during Brigham Young University football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020.

Head coach Kalani Sitake talks to players during Brigham Young University football practice in Provo on Friday, March 6, 2020. The coach draws upon gospel principles in directing his team.

Credit: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

So Sitake refuses to compartmentalize his gospel testimony and his uber-competitive coaching job.

“Our approach is very spiritual. … We pray before our meetings. We pray before every game. We include the gospel of Jesus Christ in everything we do. We make mistakes, but we try to correct them through the love of Christ and His Atonement.”

BYU, he added,  is “unique” — a descriptive word others choose as a positive or a pejorative.

“But that’s exactly why I love BYU. It’s different from any other place I’ve coached. It has changed me as a person.”

Stand-outs in the coaching ranks

Big-time football is witnessing something of a “Latter-day Saint moment” in the coaching world.

When Sitake was playing at BYU in the 1990s, his coach, LaVell Edwards, was a Latter-day Saint lone wolf among prominent head coaches.

Now several Church members are enjoying highly visible coaching success. Veteran Navy coach/stake president Ken Niumatalolo led the Midshipmen last season to a top-20 finish. Kyle Whittingham was the 2019 Pac-12 Coach of the Year following Utah’s 11-win season. Former BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall is coming off a historic season at Virginia, including an Orange Bowl appearance.

And former BYU offensive lineman and Church convert Andy Reid coached the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl victory in 50 years.

Sitake, who recently extended his contract at BYU through the 2023 season, noted that each of those successful Latter-day Saint coaches can trace connections to BYU. 

Whittingham enjoyed a stellar college career for the Cougars. Niumatalolo’s son, Va’a, played linebacker at the Church school. And both Mendenall and Reid include BYU on their coaching resumes.

“And a lot can be attributed to LaVell Edwards and the way that he was as a head coach and the example that he set,” said Sitake. “It only makes sense that people want to emulate Coach Edwards and be like him — and many have connections to him.”

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake waves to fans as he arrives for a game against USC on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Provo, Utah.

BYU head coach Kalani Sitake waves to fans as he arrives for a game against USC on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Provo, Utah.

Credit: AP/George Frey

Add to that list of prominent head coaches a growing number of Latter-day Saint assistant coaches and coordinators who will likely lead football teams of their own one day.

The gospel is anchored to principles such as family, trust and fellowship, said Sitake. And football is a quintessential team sport. “So it makes sense that a lot of [Latter-day Saint] guys become coaches and lead football teams because of what you learn as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

Besides drawing upon the example of his mentor, Edwards, Sitake said lessons he learned as a bashful young missionary in Oakland, California, still serve him well as a seasoned college football coach.

“It was on my mission where I was given leadership positions, and I had to speak in public, and I had to get out of my comfort zone. It unlocked so much potential in me as a person that I was not afraid to do anything. I knew I could go out and accomplish things.”

Here’s a harsh fact of coaching a college football game: Two head coaches stand with their teams on opposing sidelines. One will walk off the field that day a winner. The other guy, a loser. Sitake has experienced both walks.

His most recent season with the Cougars included exhilarating victories over USC, Boise State and an overtime win on the road over Tennessee. But there were other games where Sitake would surely like to hit the replay button.

Few Latter-day Saints will ever coach a Division 1 football squad — but everyone knows life’s highs and lows. So how has Sitake found balance in the middle of the extremes?

“I understand that I get paid to win games — but that’s not my motivation,” he said. “My motivation is to see these young men that I coach go into life and see what they can accomplish as priesthood holders and as leaders and as fathers and husbands — and relishing those roles.”

Winning football games, he added, is “so much fun, … but it doesn’t compare to marrying your loved one in the temple, or serving a mission or seeing others change their lives as they focus on their love of the gospel and the Savior.”

My motivation is to see these young men that I coach go into life … as leaders and as fathers and husbands.

Try naming another Church member whose job performance is discussed, critiqued and rehashed more than the BYU head football coach. If you’re a diehard Cougar, you have an opinion about the guy presiding on the team sideline on Saturdays. It’s the fan’s birthright.

Sitake gets it.

“Before I was a coach at BYU, I was a player. And before I was a player, I was a BYU fan. That fan in me remains. So I always want to make sure that our fans know how important they are to this program and to our players.

“My job is to try and make them happy — and I think they can be proud with the way our guys conduct their lives.”

Looking ahead

Like everyone, Sitake is eager for the pandemic to end. 

“Normal,” he said, “means fall and football.” 

(And, yes, he’ll surely make peace with the idea of his 16-year-old daughter dating.) 

“I just feel a lot of gratitude,” he concluded. “I’m really looking forward to doing some great things in my fifth year here. But my gratitude is not just limited to the game of football. I have a lot of goals for this program, and I think we are starting to accomplish those things.”

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