This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
A gamble taken by Chris Hill over the summer could blow up in his face, hurting Utah football in a major way when this season is done.
As reported here in August, the Utah athletic director declined to follow an established pattern of extending the contracts of certain assistant coaches including Kalani Sitake, Dennis Erickson and Morgan Scalley heading into the last year of their deals, leaving them as lame ducks during the 2014 season.
That lack of loyalty on Hill's part and that's exactly what it was troubled those coaches, especially Sitake, who has been a Ute assistant since 2005 and defensive coordinator since the weeks leading up to Utah's Sugar Bowl victory in 2009.
Sitake is bedrock to the Ute program. He carries a big stick, having garnered the loyalty and respect of other assistant coaches and particularly the players. He's a great recruiter, a dynamic motivator, probably the best identifier and evaluator of prospective talent on the staff. He delegates well and his absolute strength is building relationships. The players trust him and they play hard for him.
And now, Utah stands to lose him.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column that rings clear to anyone who has observed Sitake through the years: He will be a head coach at some point in the future. Nobody knows exactly when. But because of the way his contract was handled, or mishandled, there's a strong chance Sitake will bolt after this season. Maybe some other assistants will leave, too.
And not just for a head-coaching job. Don't be surprised if the highly regarded Sitake makes a lateral move as a defensive coordinator somewhere else. And if he does, he might take some help with him. As mentioned, there are assistants tied to him and players, too.
Loyalty is important to the man. And Hill showed none of it when Sitake and others found themselves on the business end of a threat pointed straight at them. Hill said in August the decision not to extend contracts that normally have been rolled over was "just something we decided to do this year."
It was just something that was a regrettable mistake.
Information obtained by The Tribune via an open-records request showed that the only members of Kyle Whittingham's staff whose deals run past June, 2015, are the three new assistants, hired during the past offseason: Dave Christensen, Jim Harding and Taylor Stubblefield. They signed two-year deals. Everybody else was put on a hot burner, with no guarantees past June.
Sitake deserved better than that.
The threat, according to those close to him, hasn't caused him to work any harder or do his job any better. (Like a pro, he just put his head down and soldiered on.) All it did was erode good faith and good will inside a coach who thrives on both.
While Whittingham's stamp on the Utah defense is unmistakable, Sitake is a major reason for its success this season. It's one of the best defenses in the Pac-12, and everybody knows it. It plays hard and tough and smart. Utah's D under Sitake has always outperformed the offense. And while the defensive coordinator would not comment for this column, sources say Hill's gesture did not sit easy with Sitake, nor did it sit well with the other assistants who were left hanging.
Sitake has been devoted, staunch and rock-steady, to Utah football in the past, foregoing opportunities to leave for other openings, choosing instead to stay put. He is paid well, making $500,000 under the terms of his current deal. And he is worth that, at least in relative terms of college football, and more. His relationship with Whittingham, while once warm is now less warm. Put it like this: It is workable.
Chances are slim though not completely nonexistent that he'll be back. Hill could yet soothe the harm that's been done, but it will take some extraordinary measures to rebuild what should never have been damaged from the start.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.