PROVO — The people’s person.
Kalani Sitake had the perfect answer as to why he had a lanyard with a giant colored tag hanging around his neck throughout National Signing Day last week.
The huge letters on it read: Kalani Sitake.
Don’t people know who you are around here, I ask. Do you need a name tag? Folks come up and ask, “Who the heck are you?”
Sitake laughed and took the jab in stride.
All his staff had been given name lanyards as part of a Cougar Club event on the floor of the Marriott Center that morning. The marketing folks had hammered out every last detail of the day. There, players introduced the 2019 recruiting class with a giant video board in the background, and coaches, including himself, mingled with the crowd.
“All I know is somebody took the time to make these and because they put the time and effort into doing the work, I believe I should wear it,” he said.
Sitake is a passionate people person. He gets great energy from being around others. He seeks out relationships, revels in small talk and chatter and is unafraid of eye contact. He is the opposite of an introvert.
Sitake’s comfort zone is swimming around personalities, faces, mingling with smiles and frowns.
Sitake is the kind of person who likes to work a room. If he jumped in a pool, he’d quickly seek out his water-mates and strike up a conversation. When he makes recruiting in-home visits, he stays for hours, often apologizing for staying too long.
At 43, he is 20-19 as America’s first FBS native Tongan football coach. He says it is his dream job at a place he cannot get enough of. If they want him to wear a name tag or skirt, he’d do it and smile.
Sitake has always been labeled an excellent recruiter. At BYU, that talent has been put to the test. If he doesn’t get a highly touted prospect and he’s done all he can, he’s not blinking. He recruits within the realm he must. No excuses.
“It’s easy,” he says. "If they don’t fit, you don’t recruit them. It’s just important they fit academically and with the honor code."
Sitake said when his staff first sits down with a prospect, they explain what is expected of them and don’t water it down.
“It’s not a failure at improving (recruiting), it’s the realization on both sides that maybe this isn’t the right place for them," he says. "It’s not like A-Rod, Jeff Grimes, Fesi (Sitake), Ed Lamb and Ilaisa Tuiaki all forgot how to recruit, right?
“Academically, you don't have to have A’s, but you can’t have C’s and D’s. That’s kind of the expectation. Getting an A is all right but for some, academics isn’t their thing. But the honor code has no wiggle room and I’m OK with that. Those are the standards of the program and the school and we are going to find the guys who fit it.”
Caught in a corner at the end of a long day in a BYUtv studio after a press session, Sitake described the mood he is in when he begins his day heading to work and his office.
“I love it. I love every second. I'm going to have fun," he says. "I'm having a great time, I get to coach. You know, sometimes people try to make their job look really exhausting and important. I'm not that guy. There’s nothing I’d rather do.
“I'm always going to work hard and give it my all. But I love this place and I’ve loved every second of my coaching career here. To be specific, as a head coach, I love every part of it, interacting with people and being around others.”
The 2017 season in which his program won just four games was disappointing and brought a heap of criticism. It came after he enjoyed a warm honeymoon with BYU fans on his return to the school.
The four-win campaign hit Sitake as hard as anyone because he is a huge BYU fan and it came on his watch. But it never diminished Sitake’s enthusiasm to keep fighting. When it got ugly, he reached deep inside and remembered his roots. He’s been a fighter all his life.
Still, it wounded him, but he kept humble and determined.
“Well, I'm human. I think being human is important and I have vulnerabilities, but I'm not one to hide away from what I'm not good at, and hide from my weaknesses," Sitake says. "I think part of growing is knowing what your weaknesses are and then trying to make them better. That’s the way I was raised.
“I'm not a negative person and my obligation here is to be a head coach to my players first, and have loyalty to the university and to our fans. I'm always going to do what I think is right for those that I just mentioned.”
What is the greatest lesson Sitake has learned as a head coach?
“That I’m lucky to have been a disciple of so many great people. What I’ve learned the most is how much I miss LaVell Edwards. Just to see him, to talk to him, just knowing he was around. That is what I’ve learned.”
The more Sitake is removed from Edwards, the more he realizes how much he learned from him. “I already admired him so much and I admire him even more now and the others who have coached here, Bronco Mendenhall and Gary Crowton.
“I think I've said this before, I’ve tried to embrace a lot of things that they've done here in this position. I have an appreciation for coaches like Kyle Whittingham, Gary Andersen and others that have been in my life. I really appreciate what Bronco Mendenhall did here because he's the one that was here last.”
Sitake said he remains in contact with members of Mendenhall’s staff at Virginia and considers them close friends. He is not averse to contacting them and does so often.
“It’s kind of funny that two of my mentors, Kyle and Gary, are now in the state and I’m coaching against them. I’ve also been able to lean on very good people like (Kansas City Chiefs) coach Andy Reid, Tom Holmoe, Chad Lewis and people who have had their fingers in so much football. I’ve enjoyed their friendships and that they’ve been available.”
Sitake’s coaching style is something he has to keep in harmony with his personality. His greatest strength is keeping on top of relationships. He says that is even more important to him with recruits than if they actually end up at BYU. If it isn’t a fit, he is going to be the first to tell them they might be happier elsewhere.
“I think I’ve told you this before, there's nothing unique about me," Sitake says. "I'm a boy from so many different people. The only thing I can say that I give myself credit for is listening to people around me who are so much smarter and experienced than I am. I learn from them, and that includes my wife.”
Sitake says he even learns from the media.131 comments on this story
“I just love my interaction with everybody. Those who have known me a long time know I'm not really interested in trying to tell people what to think or what to say. I just like hearing what they have to say and what they think. I think that's kind of what life's all about. Do you know how boring it is to just hang out with people that all like the same things you like?
“I mean, the best conversations I've had are arguing about the Jazz and the Lakers with other people. I just like being around people. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”