Kalani Sitake enjoyed a rather blissful first 20 months as BYU’s football coach.
By boldly authorizing a two-point conversion attempt that failed rather than kick a tying extra point against Utah last September, Sitake received almost as much credit from the Cougar fan base as he would have earned by actually winning the game.
His most spectacular failure, a fake-punt call on fourth and 19 from the BYU 5-yard line that lost yardage against Boise State, ultimately did his team no harm because the Broncos were penalized for celebrating and eventually missed a field goal. The episode merely became good material for Sitake’s offseason appearances.
In two recruiting cycles, Sitake has cited only the advantages of pitching BYU’s program. He loves his job, and his unofficial approval rating is high.
Yet the reality of his position is hitting home for Sitake lately, in multiple ways. The school’s Honor Code is making star linebacker Francis Bernard unavailable this season, according to his family. And the comments Sitake made this summer about not standing in the way of players (such as Bernard) who may want to transfer are being closely scrutinized.
All of that stuff comes with the job, as Bronco Mendenhall learned long ago and Sitake is discovering now.
As he observed Monday during his weekly news conference, “Once you make a statement, then people kind of throw that back at you all the time.”
Yeah, we do. That’s our job. Coaches are accountable for what they say.
In June, when the Cougars held their annual Football Media Day, Sitake was asked about BYU’s influx of players who once signed with other schools and were joining his program as returning missionaries, in many cases. He said he would never turn down a great athlete who fit the program, but he didn’t stop there in his response. Everything he went on to say has become a subject of this week’s debate about Sitake’s stance toward transfers.
“I mean, if a player comes home from his mission and doesn’t want to come to BYU, I will release him,” Sitake said. “If people want to transfer, we will release them. The [last] thing I want is a player that doesn’t want to be there. So why would any other coach want that? To me, I think it is pretty easy. If a kid doesn’t want to be a part of your program, then let him go somewhere so he can have a great experience and do well, and then you can bring in someone else who wants to be a part of your team.”
Sitake clarified Monday that his remarks applied only to returning missionaries who wanted to play elsewhere. That’s plausible. Yet he has to understand how someone could interpret his remarks as covering any of his players who chose to transfer.
If you study the second half of that statement, it sure sounds like complete freedom to transfer at any time. Sitake says that’s not what he meant, and I believe he believes that. He also has to realize it will create a bad look if BYU’s administration blocks Bernard’s potential transfer, even if it’s to Utah.
Even if he just redshirted and played for BYU in 2018 and ’19, Bernard’s absence would hurt Sitake’s program this season. That’s the reality of the working on a campus with BYU’s Honor Code. Bernard’s offense apparently was minor compared to the 2015 case of running back Jamaal Williams. Mendenhall said Williams “withdrew” from the school for one semester for personal reasons; in an extensive Bleacher Report story in April, Williams said he was “kicked out” for having sex, forbidden by the Honor Code.
Williams returned and rushed for 1,375 yards as a senior in 2016, but his absence had altered what turned out to be Mendenhall’s last season as BYU’s coach.
After 11 years, Mendenhall accepted Virginia’s offer for about three times as much money, taking the job at a school where winning football games is roughly 10 times tougher than at BYU. Compared with Mendenhall’s challenge in Charlottesville, Sitake has some built-in recruiting advantages and a winning tradition.
He also has some inherent challenges that come with the Honor Code and a job description that invites scrutiny. Both of those elements have come into play lately. Sitake needs to recognize they’re part of the game in Provo, if he didn’t know that already.