Once Kalani Sitake convinces a recruit to come visit BYU, he feels like he doesn’t have to do much to sell why the football program could be a good fit for that player. A rich legacy of Top 25 finishes, bowl games, record-setting quarterbacks and a beautiful campus nestled against the Wasatch Mountains does most of the heavy lifting for him.
Those recruits, Sitake believes, get a sense right away that playing for the Cougars could be a unique and rewarding experience for them.
“We’ve had recruits come from other states that don’t know anything about the state of Utah or Provo or BYU and they get here and 100 percent of them say that this is different and not what they thought it was going to be,” Sitake said. “That’s a good thing and I want them out here to experience it. For the most part, they want to come to school here.”
It isn’t just a few high school recruits who harbor this feeling. BYU lately has transformed into a popular destination for multiple transfers from other FBS and some FCS programs.
Since Sitake took over as head coach in December 2015, 14 transfers have joined BYU and shored up depth at several positions. These players are flocking to the Cougars from inside and outside the state of Utah.
“If a kid doesn’t want to be part of your program, then let him go somewhere (else) so he can have a great experience and do well, and then you can bring someone else in who wants to be part of that team.” — Kalani Sitake, BYU football head coach
BYU has added transfers who originally committed to or played for Notre Dame, Oregon, Oregon State, Wisconsin, Utah, Nevada, Hawaii, Utah State, Weber State and Southern Utah. Some players, like Wisconsin transfer Ula Tolutau or Oregon transfer Wayne Tei-Kirby, were prized recruits whom the Cougars could not reel in under former head coach Bronco Mendenhall. Now that they’re finally in Provo, they appear poised to make key contributions for BYU in seasons ahead.
BYU has drawn some criticism because many recent transfers joined the program after returning home from two-year LDS missions. Such a development prompted rumors on various social media channels that the Cougars recruited these players in the mission field.
Sitake denied that he or his staff actively recruit any athlete to play football at BYU while they are serving a mission. He said transfers reach out to the Cougars on their own because they see what is being built in Provo and want to be a part of it.
“When those guys look into it a little bit, it would be crazy for me not to take a great player,” Sitake said. “If great players want to come here and want to be part of this program and be part of this school then, yeah, I’ll take them. If that scares everybody, I don’t get it.”
Sitake said it works both ways. He is firm believer in letting players go where they want to go. If a player doesn’t want to play at BYU after serving a mission, he’ll release them and wish them well.
If they want to come to Provo, on the other hand, Sitake will welcome them with open arms.
“The last thing I want is a player who doesn’t want to be there,” Sitake said. “Why would any other coach want that? To me, it’s pretty easy. If a kid doesn’t want to be part of your program, then let him go somewhere (else) so he can have a great experience and do well, and then you can bring someone else in who wants to be part of that team.”
Recruits are drawn to the atmosphere surrounding the program. Sitake and his assistant coaches have spared no energy in connecting to recruits, former players, fans worldwide. They have installed a culture focused on hard work, player development and winning.
Football feels fun again in Provo and that enthusiasm spills over into practices and games.
“I’m feeling really motivated,” junior quarterback Tanner Mangum said. “I’m feeling really excited. I’m not the only one who feels that way. A lot of guys on the team are feeling ready to step up and make it a fun year.”
One element bolstering recruiting efforts for BYU under Sitake as time goes on is the passion and diligence of the coaching staff. Several of them played or coached for the Cougars while LaVell Edwards still guided the program. Lessons learned from Edwards greatly influence their approach to building BYU now.
All of the coaches follow the blueprint that Edwards laid out for success. They are focused on building strong relationships with, recruits, current players and fans alike, much like the architect of BYU’s football legacy once did throughout his career.
Their goal is to make recruits envision BYU as a place where they can achieve any goal, from simply earning a college degree to carving out an NFL career down the road.
“That’s the great thing about these coaches,” senior offensive guard Tuni Kanuch said. “They want you to be the best you can be on and off the field.”