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‘It Felt Right’: Kelly Poppinga On Return To BYU Football Staff

Dec 8, 2022, 10:10 PM
BYU Football, Kelly Poppinga...
Kelly Poppinga returns to the BYU football program after seven years away at Virginia and Boise State. (Courtesy of BYU Athletics)
(Courtesy of BYU Athletics)

PROVO, UtahΒ – After seven years away from his alma mater, Kelly Poppinga returned to the BYU football program on Thursday.

Poppinga, a former BYU linebacker and assistant coach on Bronco Mendenhall’s staff, left Provo to continue coaching at the University of Virginia and then a year at Boise State.

He’s back againβ€”this time on Kalani Sitake and Jay Hill’s defensive staff.

Poppinga will be a defensive assistant for a position still to be determined. He will also be the Special Teams Coordinator, a vacant spot after Ed Lamb departed to take the head coach job at Northern Colorado.

“BYU is who I am”

Despite all the time that passed since Poppinga’s last stint as an assistant, some things don’t change.

“This morning, when I walked into the building, it felt right. And it felt like home, and it felt like I’d never left, honestly,” said Poppinga. “It felt like I just drove up this morning, parked in the same spot as I used to park in seven years ago and walked into the building and it just felt good.”

Poppinga points out that he hoped to return to BYU one day. However, he thought it would take 10 to 15 years to get back, not seven. Regardless of the time frame, he’s excited to return to a place where he holds many fond memories.

“BYU is, shoot, it’s who I am, man,” Poppinga said. “I grew up with my dad taking me and my brothers to games since I was a little kid. Being able to play and being able to coach here and shoot, my first three kids were born while I was coaching here. So they’re fired up to get back and kind of remember what it’s like to be going to games here at BYU. It’s just who I am.”

BYU football is back in the hunt for conference championships

Those days when a young Kelly Poppinga was attending games with his family, BYU was always in the thick of WAC championship races. Then when he transferred to BYU from Utah State as a player, he helped BYU win the school’s last two conference titles, Mountain West Conference crowns in 2006 and 2007.

Poppinga saw firsthand what a chase for a conference title does to a program. Compared to navigating a season with no league title on the line. He coached at BYU during the school’s first five years of Independence. In his return to BYU, the goal of a conference title is back on the table. This time, however, it’s for a Big 12 crown.

“Honestly, it was one of the biggest things coming from here, going to Virginia and just being in a conference again. It was the biggest thing that stood out to me. Week in, week out, you were playing for that conference championship,” Poppinga said on the importance of a program pursuing a conference title. “Even at times where you had one or two losses, every game meant something still because you never knew what was going to happen throughout the conference.

In the last 12 years, BYU hasn’t had a chance to pursue a conference title. Poppinga is excited to help get BYU back into contention for conference titles.

“When you’re Independent, it’s kind of like you’re playing for your pride. You know, each and every week, you’re playing great opponents. But ultimately, there was no conference championship that you could really be able to compete for,” said Poppinga. “So this is a different deal, man. I’m excited for us to be back in the opportunity to compete for conference championships. I look back to my time as a player and being able to compete for those Mountain West Conference Championships and being on the last two teams that won conference championships in ’06 and ’07. Those are fond memories for me. I just look forward to creating more of those memories going forward here.”

Job process moved fast

Poppinga’s talks with BYU moved fast. After Boise State’s Mountain West Conference Championship Game, Kalani Sitake asked Boise head coach Andy Avalos for permission to talk to Poppinga. Avalos granted that permission, and Poppinga pounced on Sitake’s offer to return to BYU.

He comes back to Provo with a wealth of new experiences. At Virginia, the Hoos were a cellar dweller in the ACC when Mendenhall and his staff arrived in Charlottesville. But, by 2019, Virginia was in a New Year’s Six bowl game and champions of the ACC Coastal Division.

Along with success at Virginia, Poppinga also formed new relationships along the east coast on the recruiting trail.

“Going to a Power Five conference and being able to learn the rigors of recruiting. That was probably the biggest thing that I learned. … Just understanding the process of recruiting a Power Five level and the time it’s going to take and the recruiting battles that you’ll have to have to be able to get great recruits,” Poppinga said. “You know, here at BYU, seven years I was here before, you’re only recruiting a handful of guys. You get to Virginia, and it’s competitive in the ACC. And you’re fighting with these SEC schools and Big 12 schools. You’re all fighting over these same guys. Those were fun battles to have.”

Recruiting was also a place where Poppinga had previous experiences with Kalani Sitake and Jay Hill. They had crossed paths at All-Poly camps and coaching clinics in the past. But Poppinga hasn’t worked with either coach before.

First time working with Kalani Sitake and Jay Hill

Despite having no experience working with Poppinga, Jay Hill knew he wanted to work with him because of how tenacious and tough “K-Pop” was when Hill coached at Utah and Poppinga was a player at BYU.

“I’ve always wanted to learn from them and learn this defensive scheme that has been so successful over the years, and just seeing the success that Jay had at Utah and Weber State and, you know, obviously the success Kalani has had throughout his career. Not just at Utah but here as well. I’m excited to learn from those guys and anxious to get to work and get things rolling here.”

Poppinga won’t be on BYU’s bowl staff for the upcoming New Mexico Bowl. Instead, the special teams will be handled by analyst Gavin Fowler. But after the conclusion of the bowl, it’s all eyes towards building on the success BYU has experienced over the years.

“I think everybody is on board to hold the high standard here,” said Poppinga. “That’s really the main thing I’ve noticed going around today is that there’s a standard out here. I know Coach Kalani has done a great job of wanting to get competing for that high standard that’s been established here over the years. I’m excited to be able to help us hold that high standard of winning here. And be able to just buy into his culture and his way of doing things. That’s what I’m even more excited about; just learn that and get rolling exactly what he wants done. I’m fired up to be a part of it.”

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s BYU football coverage on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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‘It Felt Right’: Kelly Poppinga On Return To BYU Football Staff