While the college football season ended last night with an Alabama national championship, Brigham Young University and Southern Utah University are still making more turnovers than a bakery. I’m not talking about fumbles and interceptions, although BYU made enough of them in the first seven minutes of the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl to fill this column’s basket. No, the turnovers I’m talking about are coaching staff changes. Since the Las Vegas Bowl and coach Bronco Mendenhall’s departure from BYU for Virginia, the turnovers have been rising faster than we can digest them.
While Mendenhall made lots of bread cooking up his five-year deal with the Cavaliers, it wasn’t until he took six assistant coaches with him that led to a complete Cougar kitchen overhaul. Tom Holmoe, BYU’s athletic director, took his sweet time choosing a new cook as several flatly turned him down. Not enough money? Too much heat in the kitchen? Who knows?
Then came Kalani Sitake. After talking with a few general authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his former head coach LaVell Edwards, he finally agreed to leave Oregon State’s bakery to come rebuild BYU’s, which left many scratching their heads, wondering if Holmoe used the right recipe or was just cooking from scratch with what ingredients he had left.
Turned out (we hope) Kalani is just what the Cougars ordered, a smooth mixture of offensive balance, defensive aggression, personal humility and in-your-face meanness. This first Tongan head coach in Division-I football has lived the Cougar life as a fan, player, assistant and now head coach. I believe he will be a great recruiter because he is a trusted Polynesian mentor and just ornery enough to make sure football will no longer be the fifth entree on BYU’s menu.
Kalani has whipped up a coaching staff to bake some real promise into BYU football and bridge the gap between BYU’s past and present. He is surrounding himself with familiar, seasoned, experienced college players and coaches, as well as some from the NFL, who share Kalani’s passion for the game and for the student-athlete. They are:
Ty Detmer from St. Andrews High School (Texas). Detmer will be BYU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. He is the only Heisman Trophy winner in BYU history and has 14 years experience in the NFL. He wants to keep both Taysom Hill and Tanner Magnum at quarterback, though he hasn’t suggested what recipe he will use to do it. Detmer is a down-home country boy who loves to hunt and coach, and he’s good at both. I’m sure he will figure out a way.
Ilaisa Tuiaki from Oregon State is the defensive coordinator. Tuiaki is a versatile coach who has coached every defensive position for just as many schools. Even better, the players love him. Tuiaki is a recruiting machine and is well-respected by coaches and players alike.
Nu’u Tafisi is the strength and conditioning coach. Tafisi is coming from USC and has NFL experience. More importantly, he is a genius in the weight room. Look for BYU players to be leaner, stronger, quicker, faster and more competitive thanks to this hire.
Rumor has it that Steve Kaufusi will be retained as the defensive line coach. This is a no-brainer. Kaufusi is also Tongan and has been coaching at BYU since 2002. He is a spiritual motivator which goes hand-in-hand with BYU’s football program. He is a good one to keep.
Kalani’s best hire to date may be Southern Utah’s Ed Lamb as special teams, tight ends and assistant head coach. Lamb is the key ingredient in Sitake’s recipe for BYU’s success. As head coach at SUU, he lifted the Thunderbirds from despair, rebuilt the program for eight solid seasons and delivered a Great West Conference title in 2010. Lamb guided SUU to its first playoff appearance in 2013, and a Big Sky Conference title with another playoff appearance in 2015.
As SUU Athletic director Jason Butikofer put it: “For a guy like Kalani, stepping into the head coaching chair for the first time, having Ed (Lamb) in the assistant head coach role, he’s going to be an unbelievable resource.”
“Invaluable” is the word I would use. Lamb has not only been a Division-I head coach, he has been a good one. When Mendenhall left for Virginia, he was the first name that came to mind to replace Mendenhall. Assistant head coach will do just fine.
There is a recurring theme to each of Kalani’s hires: knowledge, experience and recruiting prowess. Lamb fits the bill perfectly. He is a great recruiter and knows how to reach out, enveloping the hearts of his players and their parents. Lamb recruited my son, Grantsville’s All-State linebacker Austin Gumucio, to play for the Thunderbirds in 2009. Lamb was competing with Weber State, Oklahoma State, Air Force, Missouri and BYU, but there was something special about Coach Lamb’s approach to Austin that sealed the deal for Southern Utah. This year will be Austin’s senior season and he has never regretted his decision to play for SUU, and neither have we.
Lamb will be a great asset for Kalani not only on the field and in the administration of Cougar football, but with bringing talented and tough-minded recruits to BYU.
Of the five Division-I Utah teams, SUU flew under the media’s radar this season, being the only team to win a Conference Championship with a 7-1 record in the Big Sky. The Thunderbirds ended the season ranked No. 17 in the nation and will open the 2016 football campaign playing the Utes in Salt Lake City on Sept. 1 before taking on the Cougars and their former head coach in Provo on Nov. 12.
While the postseason turnovers have been tough for BYU and Southern Utah, the time seems right for both schools to change and grow. Kalani is stirring the pot providing the right mix for BYU, and Butikofer found the right head coach for SUU in Demario Warren, who will defend the Thunderbirds’ Big Sky title and hopefully have them in the playoffs again.
Coaching turnovers are always scary, but over time they create space for someone new to emerge. So far, I like what I’m seeing. I’ll see you from the sidelines.