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PROVO — BYU is just days away from the Kalani Sitake era beginning. That is to say, by the only measure that really matters. That's winning.
Technically, the Sitake era began last December, when BYU officially hired the former Cougar fullback after Bronco Mendenhall left his head coaching position for Virginia.
The announcement was made just before the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, where the Cougars fell to the University of Utah, robbing Mendenhall of his 100th victory as BYU’s head coach.
The announcement gave BYU fans hope for the future, despite the loss, believing in greener pastures ahead.
So far, so good.
Sitake has changed the culture surrounding the BYU football team for the better. Where Mendenhall was sometimes cold, and as one Cougar told me “compartmentalized,” usually separating his family life from his football life from his playful life, Sitake has capured all of these aspects at the Cougars' facilities.
Sitake knows his players personally, interacts with them, and seemingly everyone around him, on an emotional level. His coaching staff, made up mostly of former Cougars, invites those who follow BYU football to relive the glory days of the team.
Mendenhall unnecessarily raised expectations for his football team before the season began, often reminding the media that the team’s ultimate goal was to win a national championship while spreading the word of the LDS Church. Considering there are 128 teams in college football, and only one national champion, Mendenhall could have stood to better manage the expectations for his team, making his job easier in the process.
And yet, despite Mendenhall’s perceived blemishes, he did one thing at an extraordinary level that allowed him to remain the head coach at BYU for 11 years. He won football games.
In football, winning, with few exceptions, is all that matters.
It earned Mendenhall, and the staff that followed him from BYU, an enormous raise in salary and an opportunity to coach a higher profile of football.
As glowing an endorsement as Sitake has earned in his last eight months at BYU, the first-time head coach has yet to win a game.
Where family, friendship and nostalgia are celebrated in the offseason, they can be confused with a lack of toughness, attention to detail, and innovation if the losses stack up.
Nobody mistook Mendenhall for a welcoming father figure, but the same can be said for many of college football’s best coaches. It’s hard to argue with Nick Saban’s results at Alabama over a lack of warmth in public.
That’s not to say nice guys can’t win in college football. Mike Riley enjoyed a tremendous career at Oregon State before moving on to Nebraska. Pete Carroll has won championships with USC at the collegiate level, and in the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks. Ideally for BYU fans, Sitake can add his name to the list. But the gutters of college football are littered with nice guys who didn’t win. Ultimately for Sitake, winning will be his most important measure.
Sitake deserves high praise for the work he’s done at BYU. Not just for creating a warmer environment around the Cougars' football team, but for how he’s handled difficult situations through fall camp. The coach managed to bring back Taysom Hill as the team’s starting quarterback without breaking the will of his heir apparent in Tanner Mangum. He welcomed Jamaal Williams back to the team, while gracefully handling the departure of other players whose names are missing from the roster.
But while the pastures appear greener at BYU under Sitake’s watch, Mendenhall’s shadow may loom large in the absence of victories.