Whenever the BYU football team has struggled, Cougar head football coach Kalani Sitake has refused to shy away from his duty to the program.
I’m the head coach, it’s my responsibility, I have to fix it.
Some BYU fans have expressed frustration in how Sitake has addressed things because they don’t see improvement on the field.
Don’t expect the Cougar players, however, to feel that way at all.
“That’s why we love Coach Kalani and his staff,” BYU junior defensive lineman Bracken El-Bakri said during Monday’s press conference. “That’s why we love them. For any fans out there who aren’t sure how we feel about him, that’s why we love Kalani. I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else. If I were to ever hear anything negative about Kalani, it would make me really, really angry because I feel a great loyalty to him.”
El-Bakri is a passionate guy who always expresses his emotions freely, so his emphatic endorsement came from the heart and wasn’t just lip service.
“I’ve learned how he treats us and how he’ll take the brunt of anything bad coming at us,” El-Bakri said. “Anything good that’s coming our way he points it straight to us. It’s how a loving father should act, how a good coach should act. It motivates me. I want to play my best for him.”
The two other Cougar players who answered questions at the press conference shared similar sentiments about Sitake’s willingness to shoulder all the blame himself.
“As a team, you never want to be the one to point fingers,” BYU sophomore linebacker Chaz Ah You said. “I would hope that everyone on the team would take it as a personal thing. When a coach steps up and takes the blame for the players, that shows a lot of love and a lot of humility. As a player, it makes you want to step your game up even more. His job is on the line and for him to put himself under the bus like that and take the blame for how we are playing, that shows a lot of love. It makes me want to go out and work even harder for him.”
Lopini Katoa, Cougar sophomore running back added, “I think it is a good example that he sets for all of us. That’s the mentality that I think any good coach or good player would have, to look inward and figure out what you can personally do better. What you don’t want to do is start pointing fingers because that’s what separates people and makes it hard for the team. I want to do what he does, look inward and see where I can improve my game.”
Imagine what it is like to be in Sitake’s shoes.
He clearly takes his job very seriously and devotes a tremendous amount of time and effort to promote and develop the BYU football team. He hates losing as much as anyone.
“The only stat that matters to me is winning,” Sitake said. “That’s all I care about right now. That’s what I’ve always been focused on. I’m always willing to learn and get better and that is a day-to-day process for me. But I like winning. For me, that’s the key.”
His drive is to have all of the athletes and coaches get better both as individuals and also as football players, something that certainly gets overshadowed by the on-field results.
“These guys are great young men,” Sitake said. “I love coaching them, love being around them and they are giving everything they can give. It’s important that we as coaches give that back in return. If there is more I can do as head coach, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure they get the best out of me.”
That means he has to both provide and accept honest feedback, even it is critical.
“Even though there is love doesn’t mean I’m not honest with these kids,” Sitake said. “There is direct feedback because otherwise they don’t learn and don’t grow. But if there is no love, no connection, then they aren’t going to learn as much as they should. It’s how you respond to the tough times that people will remember the most. That’s what character is all about.”
El-Bakri said he has learned to want the constructive criticism because that’s how to get better results.
“A lot of times you yearn for that because you want to know what you can do better,” El-Bakri said. “We lost the game. That sucks. We played really hard. No one is out there loafing. We are all trying our best. So if we are trying our best and still didn’t win, we need to know what we need to do to do better.”
Sitake explained that he manages the stress and frustration by looking for the opportunities.
“I know this may be hard for some to understand but I love coaching football,” Sitake said. “If it was only about the good times, then it wouldn’t be as fun. The adversity and the times you can learn build you into who you are. I’ve been built on tough times. That’s my whole life. Coaching has been the same thing. It’s unfortunate that we learn the most when things are really hard. I look at this as a learning moment for me, a way to get better as a coach and as a person.”