As a first time head coach, your head will be spinning. There’s a good chance you won’t sleep for the first month or so (and that might never change). And everything is going to feel rushed. But do not be in a hurry.
Those are the words of wisdom that BYU coach Kalani Sitake picked from observing Kyle Whittingham and Gary Andersen as first-time head coaches. Sitake was on both of their staffs during their first seasons as head coaches. First, in 2003 at Southern Utah with Andersen. And then, two years later at Utah with Whittingham.
“I’ve learned a lot from them and I’ve listened and taken notes on what they would’ve done differently if they could do it over again,” Sitake said.
But what stuck out the most was the part that he was actually the least involved in -- the hiring of a coaching staff.
Sitake studied Andersen as he hired Cole Wilson, Kevin Clune, Wes Meier and Aaron Roderick. He studied how Andersen went both inside of and outside of his own circle.
Then Sitake watched as Whittingham did the same at Utah, hiring coaches he knew well, like Andersen as a defensive coordinator (they had spent seven of the previous eight years together), and Andy Ludwig as an offensive coordinator (they had known one another since the late 1980s when they coached together at Idaho State), or former graduate assistants and players. And then how he looked outside his immediate circle, taking Charlie Dickey, who Dick Tomey recommended, and Jay Boulware, who Dickey recommended.
“It was always my belief when I became a head coach … that I wanted to keep the guys who were around me,” Andersen said. “I do that for a few reasons, because I think it gives your guys opportunity, which I love and it gives you an opportunity to be around guys you trust. It has never failed me. ... When it has been the best for me is when I stay close to the people I brought along.”
“Trust is a big word,” Whittingham said. “You’ve got to be able to trust your staff members and you know that everyone is going to be pulling the same direction, there has to be a buy in by the entire staff. That’ll make or break you.”
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Sitake has followed Whittingham and Andersen’s lead in a mix of hiring that favors old relationships. Like the two he has taken his time in finding that proper mix and perfect fit.
So far, he has made just three hires -- Ilaisa Tuiaki as the defensive coordinator, former BYU quarterback Ty Detmer as the offensive coordinator and Ed Lamb as the assistant head coach and special teams coordinator.
Growing up, Tuiaki was best friends with T.J. Sitake, Kalani’s younger brother. So long before Sitake coached Tuiaki at Southern Utah or coached with him at Utah, he was quite familiar with Tuiaki.
Sitake enjoyed how their relationship went perfectly from family friends to coach-and-player to coach-and-coach. All of those elements made Tuiaki the obvious first call for Sitake when he took the job.
“Not only my being familiar with him on a personal level but also me being familiar with him in a football sense and the business side,” Sitake said. “It all works together.”
Lamb was another hire that went back for Sitake -- the two played together at BYU and have remained close. Like Tuiaki, Lamb had coached on both sides of the ball, which was something that Andersen had seen in a lot of his hires as well.
It was in Detmer that Sitake stepped outside of his box a bit, like when Andersen hired Roderick at Southern Utah or when Whittingham hired Dave Schramm at Utah.
Detmer had graduated from BYU about a decade before Sitake, but Sitake had been a big fan of the 1990 Heisman winner and had followed Detmer’s career in the NFL. On a few occasions the two had met at coaching functions or BYU events. “It was probably more memorable for me than it was for him,” remarked Sitake.
Sitake had heard great things about Detmer -- quotes from Andy Reid and Steve Young and Brett Favre jump to mind when he thinks of all the folks who think so highly of Detmer. And since he had become a hire on Whittingham’s Utah staff based off Andersen’s recommendation, he figured those quotes were more than enough of a reason to reach out (if he didn’t have enough of a reason already).
So when Sitake hears that people are wondering why he hasn’t made more hires or why he isn’t moving at a fast enough pace, he laughs because though he has never been in this situation before, he feels like he has studied up on it.
“I made sure to take notes and kind of make myself be in a better position knowing that someday it’d hopefully happen,” Sitake said of becoming a head coach. “Now that it has I’ve surrounded myself with three really good people to kind of establish culture and establish what we want to do as a defense, offense and special teams.”
And besides, Sitake explained, there will be plenty of other things to worry about in the job. Hiring a staff is about fit and that takes time, which he won’t rush. So even though Sitake left the Pac-12, he finds himself looking back at the experiences he had under two coaches who are currently there. As he works on building his own school, he knows that some of his own hires might be studying him all the same.