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Utah's future went from bright to uncertain Tuesday afternoon, when defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake and defensive line coach Ilaisa Tuikai agreed to join former boss Gary Andersen at Oregon State.
Sitake, 39, was widely thought to be the linchpin of Utah's recruiting efforts and directed a hard-nosed defense that led the nation in sacks this season. He landed numerous recruits in California, Florida and in-state, and some players have said their relationship to him was central to their decision to commit to the U.
He will serve as defensive coordinator, and he will also determine Tuiaki's role at OSU.
Sitake is "one of the best of the best, in my opinion, at what he does," Andersen told The Tribune by phone Tuesday night. At Oregon State, he said, "it's his defense. Period, exclamation point, end of story."
The Tribune learned that Sitake's feelings toward his employer had soured somewhat, in part over the status of his contract (one year remaining entering the 2014 season) and over his pay in relation to open jobs and that of newly hired offensive coordinator Dave Christensen (both earned $500,000).
Also, after Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham made his assistant coaches predominantly off-limits to reporters during the regular season, The Tribune learned Sitake felt that he was subject to unwarranted internal suspicion in the wake of recent stories.
Still, Sitake told reporters when he was made available after a December practice in Salt Lake City that it would take "something that fits perfectly" to leave behind what he helped build at the U. The season culminated in a Las Vegas Bowl victory Saturday, in which Utah's defense held the explosive Rams offense to 278 total yards.
During the bowl's buildup, Sitake was courted by both Andersen and Utah athletic director Chris Hill. Hill hinted earlier this month at having reached some kind of verbal understanding with a coveted Utah assistant coach, although he didn't elaborate.
Reached for comment Tuesday, Hill said, "If, in fact, it's true, Kalani has done a fabulous job at the University of Utah. He knows how we feel. He knows we want him to stay, but at the same time, if he chooses to leave, we wish him the best."
Former and current players took to Twitter in the aftermath of reports, with redshirt freshman defensive tackle Filipo Mokofisi perhaps summing up the reaction best: "I can't believe that this is happening..."
Sitake had occupied the role of defensive coordinator since Andersen's departure for Utah State following Utah's Sugar Bowl victory in January 2009. A former fullback at BYU, Sitake worked under Andersen as linebackers coach from 2005 to 2008, and was previously hired by Andersen at Southern Utah as a running backs and tight ends coach in 2003.
Andersen said that he's watched Sitake put his own stamp on Utah's 4-3 man defense, and that in Sitake he gets a known quantity who addresses his two highest priorities: 1. minding players' well-being, and 2. recruiting.
Tuiaki also goes back with Andersen, recruited to play at Southern Utah and later working under Andersen as a graduate assistant at Utah in 2008 and as his running backs coach at Utah State.
His group helped the U. lead the nation in sacks with 55, the second-highest total since the NCAA began keeping team sack records in 2005.
Senior defensive end Nate Orchard is a likely NFL Draft pick, and sophomore Hunter Dimick emerged as a top-tier pass rusher under the tutelage of Tuiaki, who also led Utah's instate recruiting efforts.
When Tuiaki joined Utah State's staff he was an active mixed martial artist, and it was partly due to Andersen's urging that he left competitive fighting behind.
Former Utah defensive line coach Chad Kauha'aha'a will also follow Andersen from Madison to Corvallis.
That Andersen left Wisconsin to fill the job vacated by Mike Riley came as a shock to many. Sources close to Andersen said he took the job in Corvallis because he felt hamstrung by academic restrictions and assistant pay in Madison.
The Badgers lost the Big Ten Championship Game 59-0 to Urban Meyer's Ohio State, but they went 19-7 in Andersen's two years at the helm.
After Andersen accepted the position at Oregon State, the Chicago Tribune reported that those close to Andersen felt he hoped to replace Whittingham at the U.
Sitake was the 67th highest-earning college football assistant, according to USA Today's database. Tuiaki earned $175,000 salary at the U. Utah's staff was the 39th-highest compensated, while Oregon State's was 41st. Before joining Riley in Lincoln, Mark Banker made $505,008 in his 11th year as OSU's defensive coordinator.
Whittingham has been linked to the open head job at Michigan, but has repeatedly declined any comment on job openings, as has Hill.
Whittingham also declined comment for this story. Andersen said that he called Whittingham about the hires, and that the two remain friends.
"It's never something that you want to hear when somebody calls and wants to hire one of your coaches," Andersen said, noting that he received the same call from Whittingham when the U. hired Kauha'aha'a and Tuiaki away from him at Utah State.
Andersen hopes they are able to get dinner together over the holidays.
Attempts to reach Tuiaki and Sitake were unsuccessful as of Tuesday evening.
Tribune reporter Tony Jones contributed to this report.