Kalani Sitake’s journey lines him up as a BYU fan, then Cougar running back and now head football coach — but his favorite team is at home.
When Kalani and Timberly Sitake’s only son, KK, was younger he would avoid eating dinner because he was having too much fun. Then when he was tucked into bed for the night, he would yell out, “I’m sorry about this, but I’m hungry!”
Fun-loving Kalani still uses that phrase to joke with his family about being ready to eat, which he says is basically all the time.
“The first thing I do when I come home is open the fridge, even if I’ve just had dinner,” Kalani says. “And I don’t come away empty-handed.”
The Sitake family of five knows something about hunger as their thirst for the head BYU coaching job was palpable last fall. As a lifelong Cougar fan and starting BYU fullback from 1998-2000, Kalani’s dream job has always been to coach the team he grew up coaching from the bleachers.
“I was that 10-year-old kid yelling at the coaches, ‘Give Matt Bellini the ball! Throw it to Drage!” Kalani says. “I understand where our fans are coming from because I think like a fan.”
In fact, he says he started his job by doing the two things any BYU fan would do first: He called LaVell Edwards for advice and he hired Ty Detmer, BYU’s only Heisman Trophy winner, as offensive coordinator.
Forty-year-old Kalani Sitake, the first ever Division 1 head football coach of Tongan descent, may not have caught the top Cougar job without Timberly, his wife of 14 years who he met at a Sub for Santa dance when they were BYU students.
“I was praying hard that I would get the BYU coaching job and I kept having this impression to talk to my wife about it,” Kalani says. “But I knew she didn’t know a lot about the game. Finally, I asked for her thoughts, and she unloaded. She may not know a lot about football, but she knows everything about me and my desires.”
Timberly was confident throughout the process that BYU would bring their family back to Provo from Oregon, where he had coached for one year after a decade on the sidelines at the University of Utah.
“Kalani was worried that because his interview was at a restaurant near the Portland airport, that they may not be giving him serious consideration,” Timberly says. “I told him it didn’t matter where they wanted to meet. I knew if they talked to him for 15 minutes, they would hire him. He has so much passion for BYU football and he’s very persuasive. He wanted it with everything (as she raises her fists in the air)!”
She was right. He was grateful. And to celebrate, Timberly says they “had Christmas.” But even on Christmas day, Kalani had his mind on a different celebration. He was ready to rise and shout.
“He kept saying all day that he needed to get to work and that he was ready for Christmas to be over,” Timberly says. “And I told him, ‘You can’t call recruits right now! First of all, I don’t think you’re allowed. Second of all, it’s Christmas!’”
And every day since has felt like a holiday.
Line of scrimmage
Although Kalani’s spacious office and healthy paycheck have him at the top of the game he loves, his route has been non-linear.
His biggest life challenge began at age 6 when his parents divorced.
“Despite having a lot of love in my life, the divorce has had a lasting effect on me and my siblings,” he says.
He struggled with confidence and defeating thoughts. A couple years after the divorce, Kalani’s life changed at a Cascade Elementary assembly.
“All the BYU players were there, telling us to stay away from drugs, eat our veggies and don’t take rides with strangers,” he remembers.
Afterward, classmates clamored for autographs, but he shyly stayed back. A player sought him out and asked his name.
“He embraced me and it was beautiful,” Kalani says. “That moment started the healing process and I felt that I had purpose. It changed my life. I was already a BYU fan, but now I was going to die a BYU fan.”
Kalani has since connected with that player (who we chose not to name) and they relived that conversation.
“I have told the student athletes that experience and how grateful I am for a player who listened to the spirit and embraced me, even if it didn’t make sense to him,” he says. “A smile, a gesture can change someone’s life in less than 10 seconds. That experience has impacted me for 30 years.”
On a mission
Once Kalani put on his own BYU jersey, the biggest influence came from the legend that Kalani now follows. LaVell called Kalani into his office during his freshman year.
“I was having a good season and I thought he was going to praise me,” he says. “I felt like I belonged on the team and was performing well.”
Instead, LaVell asked Kalani if he had thought about going on a mission and he bore his testimony.
“I turned my papers in a couple weeks later,” Kalani says. “A mission may not have been great for me football-wise, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Something special happens when you serve others for two years and focus on their happiness and salvation. I went from being a selfish kid to being a better person.”
Kalani’s mission began on the campus of UC Berkeley. He describes it as a “cool experience” to step out of his comfort zone and test himself.
“Before long, I was OK getting asked to speak in sacrament meeting 10 minutes before it started,” he says. “I’m going to support the mission program forever. That’s my mindset, even though it’s difficult because as a coach you want to have all your cards in your hand. But missions are part of our program and our secret to success on and off the field.”
Put a ring on it
As a BYU player, Kalani hurt his leg and ankle in the Wyoming game and had to have surgery. He didn’t travel with the team for a time, and Timberly kept him company.
“He allowed me to read the first two Harry Potter books to him when we were dating,” Timberly laughs. “And then he went with me to the midnight premiere and I was wearing my Hogwarts shirt!”
But Kalani is also a self-proclaimed “nerd” in his own way. He first majored in math before switching to English, and he loves literature. He also enjoys playing along while watching “Jeopardy.”
“I know a lot of useless things, and I win Jeopardy most of the time, even though my siblings get after each other when we play,” he says. “I used to read encyclopedias for fun.”
Another of his passions is Studio C. When his family was given tickets to a recent taping, he woke up his kids to tell them the news and then left a football camp 30 minutes early to make it on time — “which is a huge deal,” Timberly says.
“Laughter is the best ab workout of all time,” he says. “I love it when you have bursts of laughter and you are actually begging for people to stop. Those are my favorite moments.”
He’s also one to cause the laughter. Kalani took his father to Mitt Romney’s charity boxing event last month featuring Oscar de la Hoya and Mario Lopez, and he told people he left his wife at home because she has a crush on Slater (Mario’s most famous character).
“That’s what you told people?” Timberly asked at the photo shoot. “Seriously? That’s not true, but it’s funny.”
“I was frustrated as a fan when we lost. I was elated and fired up when we won. I was there when we beat Miami. I was at the parade when we won the national championship. I ran the stairs going up to campus as part of my dad’s training when I was younger. He wanted me to one day get a shot at playing at BYU.” —Kalani Sitake, BYU head football coach
Win or Lose
Kalani is driven by winning, but it’s not the only playbook he keeps score in. One of his most memorable BYU experiences as a player happened in Aloha Stadium, near one of his two hometowns (he claims Laie and Provo as home).
“I was warming up and trying to find my dad in the stands,” Kalani says “I found him and my uncles right before kickoff, and I pointed at them. My dad was bawling. He didn’t care whether we won or lost. Having him there was one of the best moments.”
(For the record, BYU won.)
Kalani plans to follow LaVell’s example of how he carried himself with the media and his family after either wins or losses.
“He taught us that the best part of the game is having our family there to support us,” he says. “I don’t want our players’ families to have anxiety. The outcome of the game is not more important than those who are there to share it with you. And in the few moments we don’t win, we need to still carry ourselves in the right way.”
One of Kalani’s measuring sticks as a father is that he doesn’t want his kids to be able to tell whether his team won or lost after he comes home after a game. With his oldest daughter, Skye, that shouldn’t be a problem.
“Our kids grew up Utah fans and during our last season coaching at Utah, we were almost to our seats and Skye said her back hurt so bad,” Timberly says. “I opened up her backpack and she had brought 14 books to read! On more than one occasion, after she’s been at a game, she’ll still ask if we won or lost.”
As a BYU student herself, Timberly’s gameday approach wasn’t much different.
“If I went to the game, I was mostly there for the polish sausage dog,” she laughs. “But now, if I think about our first game too much, my stomach gets upset.”
Kalani’s coaching style builds on the legacy of LaVell Edwards, Gary Crowton and Bronco Mendenhall. But he also has his own strategy.
“We won’t be continuing the haka,” Kalani says. “It’s a war dance and football is just a game. A lot of people have put their life on the line in actual war, and I think it’s a disservice to those who have lost their loved ones fighting for our freedom. I don’t want to taunt the other team or discount the actual war heroes.”
Although he agrees that the haka dance is a form of entertainment, Kalani prefers to entertain the fans by scoring points.
“We have Living Legends and the Cougarettes who can dance and entertain,” he says. “We’re going to play football.”
Kalani plans to have a military veteran run out the American flag with the team as a tribute to those who have loved ones serving our country.
Kalani says he pinches himself every day that Timberly is his wife, that head coach of BYU is his job, and that he has three beautiful children to raise.
Timberly also sees the blessings in their life’s journey. After Kalani graduated, he went to the Cincinnati Bengals for a short time and then the doctor said he shouldn’t play anymore because of back issues.
“That has been such a blessing because he got to start his coaching career so early,” Timberly says. “We’ve been grateful for his career and for each other since back in the day when we used to page each other secret messages using numerals. Our journey began at BYU, included 10 happy years at Utah, one peaceful year in Oregon, and now back here for our dream job. I knew BYU would hire Kalani, and now the BYU community will see why.”