SALT LAKE CITY — BYU made an announcement Monday that two years ago would have seemed like an impossibility. Former Heisman Trophy winner, and BYU’s most decorated record holder, Ty Detmer was being relieved of his position as offensive coordinator, just 23 months into the job.
Even a season ago, the move would have seemed far-fetched. Detmer, along with head coach Kalani Sitake, had won nine games in their first season leading the Cougars, and their four losses came by a combined eight points. And that was done with former quarterback Taysom Hill, who, while an offensive juggernaut in his own right, didn’t appear to have the skills as a passer to best operate a Detmer pass-happy offense.
And yet, after a disappointing 4-9 season that wrapped up with a win over Hawaii, Detmer’s fate rests in the hands of BYU’s next offensive coordinator, who will decide whether to retain the current members of the offensive staff.
Fans rejoiced at what appeared to be home-run hire, bringing in a coach who not only understood football well enough to mentor some of the greatest QBs to ever play the game but also carried enough cachet within the football community to draw top commits to BYU.
But the potential never materialized. BYU’s offense failed to establish an identity with Tanner Mangum taking over for Hill, while injuries and off-the-field issues ravaged the young offense. BYU, once known as "Quarterback U," which repeatedly developed and produced high-powered offenses, struggled against mediocre defense throughout 2017.
Statistically, the Cougars had one of the worst offenses in the country. BYU finished with the 100th or worse ranking offensively in total yards, yards per game, rushing yards per game, total points and points per game. Regardless of BYU’s occasional defensive struggles, the offense simply didn’t allow the team to stay competitive in most games.
Now Sitake and the athletic director must re-examine what they believe can realistically be achieved at BYU within the modern college football landscape. BYU can’t compete financially with even the lower-level Power 5 conference teams, making hiring and retaining or replacing coaches more difficult. That may limit the next coordinator’s ability to clean house and bring in his own offensive staff, which could impact the allure of the position. If the issues on the coaching staff stretch beyond the shortcomings of Detmer, the next coordinator may be saddled with similar difficulties.
While former head coach Bronco Mendenhall often spoke of aspirations of winning a national championship at BYU, Sitake will likely have to shift his goals toward simply ensuring his own job safety at BYU, as his fate could be similar to Detmer’s if his team continues its current downward trajectory. With that in mind, the Cougars' next hire may have to serve more as a life preserver, intended to save those on board at BYU, rather than a new engine for a boat that may be sinking.
Luckily for Sitake, BYU isn’t far from what should be the baseline for him to keep his job. With just two more wins this season, the Cougars would have been preparing for their 13th consecutive bowl streak, rather than making major changes this offseason.
With that in mind, Sitake shouldn’t feel pressured to bring in a flashy name to lead his offense, hoping to win a press conference. Hiring Detmer showed the dangers of making a hire on name value alone, as opposed to a history of success. Rather, BYU should be focused on hiring a proven name with a proven track record, even if it fails to create the buzz that Detmer’s hire made.
After a successful, albeit occasionally predictable coaching run by Mendenhall, I understand the Cougars' desire to make a splash by hiring Detmer to lead their offense. But as is often the case with unproven coaches, he found himself in over his head during his first college football stint. If Sitake wants to avoid a similar fate, he’d be wise to follow an old football cliche, hiring a coach that allows him to play another down, rather than trying to make the big play.