This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
An hour after most everyone had vacated the building on the day he was introduced as BYU's new head football coach, Kalani Sitake meandered his way through a lobby and toward the door. He stopped to accept well wishes from a lingering few. He hugged a man. He hugged a woman. He hugged a family member. He hugged a fan. He hugged a friend. He kissed a baby. OK, he did not. He didn't kiss a baby. But he hugged and he hugged and he hugged, again. He got and gave a thousand hugs.
Now, eight months later, the offseason of hugs has ended.
And the pressure of so many embraces of the collective squeeze of an energized fan base clamps down hard on a head coach who has never done what he is about to do before. What was it that a member of the Mafioso with bad intentions used to do to a condemned man at least in the Hollywood version? Yeah, give him a hug and a kiss.
In the run-up to Saturday night's kickoff against Arizona in Glendale, Ariz., Sitake shows no signs of being under duress, of being a dead man walking. In fact, it's the opposite. He looks calm and confident. He looks excited and enthused. He looks like he doesn't have a worry in the world.
"Of course," he says, "we haven't lost a game yet."
Sitake knows what the losses feel like, having suffered them a hundred times, just not as a head coach. He's fully aware of what has been said about him on his re-entry to BYU football, having replaced Bronco Mendenhall, a coach who won a lot of games he should have won, but giving his team's fans few surprises over big name opponents and, at times, kind of weirding them out with his often odd approach. Even the legend LaVell Edwards just last week called Sitake's presence "a breath of fresh air."
Ironically enough, the new coach starts his BYU coaching career facing a bunch of teams against which his Cougars will not be favored, the exact sort of opponents including rival Utah that drained the enthusiasm from the program with losses under Mendenhall.
Which is to say, it is left to Sitake to take the shackles off a program that formerly had been seen as a successful-but-limited outfit. It's an opportunity for the coach to add force and fire to all the anticipation his team and his fan base have felt since his arrival.
There is bound to be disappointment. You start with Arizona, Utah, UCLA, West Virginia, Michigan State, Mississippi State and Boise State, and only a person blinded by his own fandom sees flat, smooth waters. Here's the thing, though: Sitake can take a lesson from the legend himself. BYU fans will stomach some losses, as long as a coach throws them a few amazing biscuits, alongside. If the Cougars mix in just enough wins through the first two-thirds of their season, that's enough to float the hope they already feel.
New offensive coordinator Ty Detmer remembers the same year he led the Cougars to their memorable win over Miami, a victory that still resonates with patrons, the same year he won the Heisman, BYU got crushed by Oregon, by Hawaii, and by Texas A&M. The same year the Cougars beat Notre Dame in South Bend, a first for them, they lost to Colorado State, Arizona State and Utah.
Give those people including the players a glimpse, then, of what the possibilities are, they won't care as much about some of the realities, especially not in the first year of a build that even with some strong returning talent will take time.
"Everything's good," Sitake says. "Nothing's really surprised me. There's a little bit of stress. But I can build on what others have done. I'm not saying I'm perfect. I'm just saying I expected all of this. I know things won't always be perfect, but I'll be able to handle that."
He'll have to.
Sitake sees what he's commencing on as a test of what he's already learned, all the lessons he picked up in his playing and coaching past "I'm a collection of all that," he says from mentors such as Edwards, Kyle Whittingham, Gary Andersen, among others. He trusts what they taught him. He trusts his ability to adjust it and apply it. And he trusts the people around him now.
"I love what I'm doing, the people I'm with, and I'm grateful for the preparation that got me here," he says. "I thought I'd be more on edge, more ornery, but I've found myself at peace because of the players and coaches I'm with."
The hugging is done.
"Now, all I've got to do is win."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.