PROVO – BYU’s impressive run of success that began last season begs the following question: Has the program arrived in Kalani Sitake’s sixth year as head coach?
Dating back to last September, the Cougars are conjuring up memories of the great runs the program regularly enjoyed under legendary coach LaVell Edwards and that were matched by Bronco Mendenhall’s teams from 2006-09. At this point, after thrashing Utah to win the rivalry game for the first time in 12 years, the 23rd-ranked Cougars are 13-1 in their last 14 games.
Without question, by far BYU is on its best run during the Sitake tenure, which until last season had been defined by a series of bad to mediocre seasons. Even last season’s 11-1 record was called into doubt due to a pandemic-related schedule that saw the Cougars playing no Power 5 teams.
But all those legions of skeptics were silenced last Saturday in the house that Edwards built before a delirious sold-out crowd in Provo. To put it bluntly, against the program that had won nine consecutive rivalry games, the Cougars bullied the Utes to the point coach Kyle Whittingham admitted his team was dominated in the trenches.
Rarely, if ever in recent memory, has Utah’s interior lines fallen short on both sides of the football. The convincing performance prompted resident tough guy Whittingham to say afterward he would have bet his own house that the Utes wouldn’t have lost the line of scrimmage on offense and defense.
Yet, they did. Good thing Whittingham didn’t make any pregame wagers.
Examining the evidence, all signs point to Sitake building a consistent winner capable of competing as the program transitions into the Big 12 beginning in 2023. Understandably, even though most programs do it more quickly, BYU is right on time.
As the football coaches can readily attest, most things at BYU move at a snail’s pace. A single hire, a process that can be relatively short at most programs, requires a host of interviews that go well beyond the athletic department at the LDS-owned university.
Same thing goes for building a football program at BYU.
Led by quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams, both of whom are still playing in the NFL, BYU went 9-4 in Sitake’s first season. But the talent pool dried up in his second season, leading to an abysmal 4-9 record.
Fortunately, the administration signed off on Sitake’s decision to overhaul a coaching staff that was woefully short on experience on the offensive side. The arrival of veteran coach Jeff Grimes, who has since left to become offensive coordinator at Baylor, along with another two experienced coaches in Aaron Roderick and Fesi Sitake made a significant difference that is still paying dividends.
Roderick, who served four seasons as offensive coordinator at Utah before being let go, brought a resume rarely found at BYU. Going back some 40 years, the program usually employs coordinators who are first-timers in the position.
Along with a defensive staff that collectively has been in the program for several years, BYU now has extensive coaching experience on both sides of the ball. Going forward, BYU needs to move away from being a program that serves as an entry level for coaches.
Given the constant stream of missionaries coming and going out of and into the program, BYU often needs several years to develop talent. By last season, which saw five players selected in the NFL draft, the staff was coaching the recruits signed years earlier.
The Cougars also caught a few breaks along the way, namely reeling in quarterback Zach Wilson after he committed to Boise State. A longstanding relationship Wilson had with Fesi Sitake and Roderick played a significant factor in the future No. 2 pick in the draft changing his mind.
Using logic to peer into the future, Big 12 membership likely will improve BYU’s recruiting. And with national powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas due to leave the conference when or soon after BYU joins, better talent and continued coaching stability should allow BYU to make a relatively smooth transition.
This isn’t to suggest a steady stream of 11-win seasons or several conference championships are in order, but BYU has no excuse not to field competitive teams going forward.