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PROVO — BYU will not be Kalani Sitake’s first coaching stop.
The veteran of Utah, Southern Utah and Oregon State has been around the block in a 15-year college coaching career.
But BYU’s 2016 season will be different, for more than just Sitake’s first season as the head coach in charge of an entire program.
“It’s a lot different, because you’re involved with everything,” Sitake said during his first media day at the helm of BYU football. “As a coordinator, all I was worried about was getting the defense ready, and maybe helping out with some special teams. Now it’s even more names, where I’m deciding on a lot of things like hotels, where we’ll stay, what food we’re eating, our players’ nutrition, and responding to the weight room. I’m a lot more involved in organizing the team.”
If you feel like you see Sitake moving around BYU campus more often, that’s probably accurate. He’s been spotted in the student section at BYU basketball games, rubbing elbows with BYU president Kevin Worthen and LDS Church apostle David A. Bednar at a men’s volleyball match, and occasionally grabbing a bite to eat at Legend’s Grill in the Student Athlete Building.
BYU is more than a job for Sitake. The school where he started three years at fullback has always held a special place in his heart. It’s not just where he accepted his first coaching job, or where he spent one season as a defensive graduate assistant in 2002, or even where he was named a team captain in 2000.
The first FBS head football coach of Tongan descendant met his wife Timberly in Provo, and his three children have grown up BYU fans — just like their father before them. He’s as familiar with the Provo nightlife and dating scene as he is with BYU’s history of football success.
“I get what the players are going through,” Sitake said. “I lived the same things they lived. “It’s a unique place to be, and there’s no place like Provo to play football and go to school. We have a lot of guys who understand what BYU is all about, and it’s natural for us to teach these young men how to go about their day.”
Sitake’s staff also knows what BYU is and its unique place in the landscape of college sports. Eight of his nine assistant coaches graduated from BYU, including offensive coordinator Ty Detmer — the proud recipient of the Cougars’ most prestigious football award, the Heisman Trophy in 1990 that still sits in its own case in BYU’s Legacy Hall.
The lone exception is defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki, a graduate of nearby Timpview High School who went on to play at Snow College and Southern Utah.
But Tuiaki moved around with Sitake, becoming his right-hand man at Utah and joining the current BYU coach at Oregon State as the linebackers coach when the latter was named Gary Andersen’s defensive coordinator.
“I’m excited to be back home,” Tuiaki said when he took the BYU job. “I’ve always been a fan and tied to the BYU program, growing up just down the street from the stadium.” In all, 21 former BYU football players are employed by the athletic department. There’s no wonder many have taken to calling the new head coach the Cougars’ “fan in chief.”
Of course, Sitake recognizes he isn’t the only BYU fan — just one who happens to hold a significant position with the school’s flagship sport.
“I’m blown away at how much support we get at all these places. I’ve never been to Washington, D.C., and to see all the fans for the fireside there was great,” Sitake said. “Wherever we go play, we’ll have a lot of support. It was comforting for the players on the trip to know we will have fans wherever we go.”
That doesn’t mean Sitake isn’t grateful for his time spent at every other stop along the way — including the Cougars’ biggest rival to the north, the University of Utah. He still holds a close friendship with Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, and considers him among his biggest coaching mentors, along with Andersen and BYU legend LaVell Edwards.
“There are a lot of other people along the way who have been huge mentors for me,” Sitake said. “But the bulk comes from LaVell Edwards, Kyle Whittingham and Gary Andersen. “Those guys have been very successful head coaches, and I hope to do well in this position.”
Sitake also hopes to carve out his own path as a collegiate head coach. BYU assistant head coach Ed Lamb, who held the top position at Southern Utah as recently as last year, is already seeing the way Sitake is growing into his new role.
“He’s grown, and I think he’ll still grow every day and every year,” Lamb said. “There’s never a time in football where you can get comfortable in your position. Right now, he’s gaining his voice at a more rapid rate than he will later. But it’s important for him to find out who this team is, and who this staff is.”
The growth will continue through Sitake’s first fall camp, and through the 2016 regular season that many are calling the most difficult schedule in BYU history. With road trips to play teams like Arizona, Utah, Michigan State and Boise State, as well as home dates with UCLA and Mississippi State, the first-year head coach’s task is daunting.
But he isn’t sweating any of it.
“I”m not stressed about anything,” Sitake said with a laugh. “I know coaches say that, but I’m having fun doing this.
“I know everything about this place; the library is in the same spot as it was when I was a student. Nothing keeps me up at night. I’m just really excited and ready to go.”