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SALT LAKE CITY — With a favorable schedule, one in which it should be favored in at least eight games, the BYU football team has an excellent chance at getting 10 wins during the upcoming regular season.
If the Cougars reach the double-digit win mark, Kalani Sitake would have won 19 games over his first two seasons as a head coach, not counting the impending bowl game to conclude this next season. It would also leave him as an attractive candidate in the college coaching world, which usually spins at a dizzying rate as soon as the regular season ends every year.
Most any college program, especially those in the Pac-12, would be wise to consider Sitake should their football team need a rising star. The 41-year-old gregarious Tongan can develop friendships almost instantly and is able to connect with people on any level.
More importantly, tutored by defensive masterminds Kyle Whittingham of Utah and Oregon State’s Gary Andersen, Sitake is an outstanding football coach. He’s also a player’s coach, with the ability to recruit and develop talent.
In barely 18 months on the job, he has revitalized BYU, a program that was in dire need of an enthusiasm infusion among its fan base. Somewhere, if you look hard enough, there might be somebody who doesn’t like Sitake.
All of this begs the following question: How long can BYU keep its coach?
For years, despite all his overwhelming success, the late LaVell Edwards was not the highest paid coach in the Western Athletic Conference. Last summer, five months before his death in December, Edwards joked that money was the reason he did all those infamous call-in segments with often ignorant fans after games.
“They paid me $75,” he said, displaying the keen sense of humor that was part of his universally beloved personality.
Edwards was a gem in many ways, mixing the ability to build BYU into a nationally respected program while staying comfortable with his relatively underpaid financial status. Along the way, he turned down multiple possibilities to move on to higher-paying coaching opportunities.
Can BYU count on Sitake, who played fullback for Edwards, to follow in one of his mentor’s paths? In time, when the big-money offers roll in, Sitake will face a potentially life-altering decision.
Faced with a similar choice, Bronco Mendenhall said yes to leaving BYU. In December 2015, Mendenhall left to his native state for a contract at Virginia that will guarantee him at least $17.75 million (according to the Daily Press in Virginia).
For much of his 11 years as the head coach, Mendenhall preached the good word of BYU football, comparing his position to that of LDS mission president to the angst of some in the fan base that preferred he concentrate more on being a coach. He openly mingled scripture with pigskin, extolling the program as different from that of any other college.
Despite insisting money was not an overriding factor in leaving BYU, Mendenhall got a huge pay raise at Virginia. In his first season, the Cavaliers were 2-10, taking a seven-game losing streak into this year.
At Mendenhall’s press conference announcing his decision to leave, athletic director Tom Holmoe acknowledged BYU was not in position to match the Virginia financial package. No way BYU was going to pony up that much cash to keep Mendenhall, whose tenure was successful — particularly in the early stages — but had seemed to grow stagnant from the fans’ perception.
Will it be a different story for Sitake?
Almost overnight, Sitake made it cool again to be a BYU fan. He and his staff, which is heavily populated with former Cougars, immediately connected with a fan base that desperately wanted a relationship with the head coach.
In the process, boosters with deep pockets have noticed. Those same boosters, Holmoe has stated, already have stepped up to help fund an athletic program that doesn’t receive nearly the same as Power 5 schools get from television contracts.
Wealthy donors are also prepared to take care of Sitake, who has repeatedly spoken of his deep connection to BYU and its surrounding community. Without a doubt, he and his family are thriving back home.
Eventually, though, P-5 money might be too much to overcome. For great reason, the BYU community hopes not.