Ute football: U.'s Whit making plays for support
With a veteran defense and an offense boasting a variety of talent, the Utah Utes are expected to contend for the Mountain West Conference title and possibly break into the BCS.
It could be the season in which the Utes put the success of the 2004 team far behind them and claim their own identity as something more than just a great bowl team.
It could be a pivotal year for the team, but perhaps even more so for the coach who leads them.
When Urban Meyer left for Florida following the 2004 season, defensive coordinator Kyle Whittingham was quickly hired to replace him. At the time the hiring was considered a victory for Utah athletic director Chris Hill because Whittingham turned down BYU to remain with the Utes.
Hill rewarded Whittingham by giving him a yearly package worth $675,000, making him the second-highest paid coach in the MWC behind TCU's Gary Patterson, who made $1.1 million at the private school in 2005.
Meanwhile, the Cougars tabbed Bronco Mendenhall as the man to restore their program to its past glory.
Now three years into their coaching careers, it's hard to say Utah got the better deal. Mendenhall has led the Cougars through two undefeated seasons in MWC play, two bowl victories and national rankings. The Cougars were ranked No. 17 in the final 2007 BCS standings and are starting the season ranked No. 16 in the AP Poll.
Last season BYU showed its satisfaction with Mendenhall by giving him a contract extension through the 2011 season reportedly worth $1 million annually.
Under Whittingham, the Utes have stretched their bowl winning streak to seven games and have managed to overcome critical injuries to starters to have successful seasons. However, the Cougars have what Utah doesn't: league titles, a 2-1 edge over their rival school and a near-constant presence in the national rankings.
Utah's Hill has given Whittingham vocal support, but hasn't given him the security of a contract extension. He won't say when he'll evaluate Whittingham's situation, saying only that "every year is an important year."
But now, with Whittingham going into the fourth season of his six-year contract with a team expected to rival BYU for the league title, it could be viewed as a season for him to prove himself as a head coach. He is no longer in the top tier of highest paid coaches, although his base salary doesn't include apparel and retirement packages like others do - and the Utes are no longer the top dog in the conference.
He doesn't care about the money, he says, but he does care about the final standings and knows it's time for him to deliver. Winning a MWC championship is his priority.
"A three-year absence, it has been too long," he said. "This program is at the level we should have that in our sights every year."
Utah has been there and showed the potential of a MWC contender, but hasn't finished.
Where Meyer's short time with the Utes will be defined by that undefeated season, so far Whittingham's tenure has been defined by losses that many believe shouldn't have happened.
Losing to BYU hurts immensely on one level, but losing to teams such as San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV in games many thought the Utes should have won hurts in a whole other way. Those were the losses that quarterback Brian Johnson was thinking of when he said the Utes have underachieved in recent seasons.
In that respect, Whittingham's guidance in 2008 might be better judged for how his team plays in would-be gimme games like Utah State, UNLV and San Diego State, not how it does against Michigan, Oregon State or BYU.
Losing a well-played game is acceptable, losing one because a team underachieved isn't.
"It's my main responsibility as a head football coach to make sure the team is ready to play each and every week," said Whittingham, who has taken the blame for the 27-0 loss at UNLV.
Can Whittingham get the job done? Those around him say he can and point to the way he has changed as a coach as evidence. He doesn't run the program like a dictatorship as he tended to do in the past, but does a better job of listening to his assistants and his players and considering their input.
"He's continually adjusting his ideas and views throughout the program and developing it," defensive coordinator Gary Andersen said. "He is a smart guy. Kids change and times change, and people who are successful adjust to that."
Leading up to the season, Whittingham did more team-bonding activities such as retreats and rope courses with his staff. With the team he has instituted more motivational tactics, such as gassers for coaches when players beat a coach in a foot race and so forth.
"He has changed in a big way," said receiver John Peel, one of the few players who were on the roster in 2004. "He has become more comfortable as a head coach and more understanding of us."
Now is the test to see if all that change and his unity with the players and coaches pays off in wins. If it does, it could pay off in dollar signs, too, not that he is thinking about that possibility.
"All I think about is beating Michigan," he said.