New Orleans » Kyle Whittingham hardly could have imagined anything like this happening as of September 2007, when his Utah football team was struggling and his coaching future was in question.
Fifteen months later, with the Utes preparing to play Alabama in Friday's Sugar Bowl, Whittingham and the university celebrated the achievement by agreeing to a five-year contract, worth $6 million -- - the richest coaching contract in school history.
The deal replaces the original six-year, $4 million contract Whittingham received in December 2004 when he was promoted to replace Urban Meyer.
Beyond the Utes' 12-0 record and Bowl Championship Series bid, athletic director Chris Hill said, "More important for me is the direction we're headed."
In making the announcement during a brief news conference at the team's hotel Monday, Hill cited "the building process" involved with Whittingham's program in the post-Meyer era, complimenting his "progress at the end of last year" and the increased level of recruiting in driving the new deal, which they began discussing in early November.
Asked about the rewards of surviving some difficult times in his first three seasons, Whittingham said, "Do I appreciate it? Yeah, for sure."
Even though he is becoming Utah State's head coach, longtime associate Gary Andersen gained satisfaction in helping Whittingham secure his future. "Especially the way it went, to turn that around and win as many games as we have, it's been a heck of a ride," Andersen said.
At various checkpoints in his head coaching career, Whittingham stood 5-5, 11-9 and 16-13. He's 36-14 now, with 20 wins in his past 21 games. Only Meyer, who won 21 of his last 22 games as Utah's coach in 2003-04, can top that run in school history.
Meyer was awarded a new contract after his first season, then moved to Florida following the Utes' Fiesta Bowl appearance in his second year. If Whittingham, 49, finishes out this contract, he will have spent 20 years at the school, including 11 seasons as an assistant coach. He described his position as "the best job in the country, as far as I'm concerned."
His salary is competitive nationally, although not in the range of Alabama coach Nick Saban's $4 million annually. Without a raise, Whittingham's pay would have ranked sixth in the Mountain West Conference. Now, his $1.2 million average salary is second only to the $1.4 million for Texas Christian's Gary Patterson and represents the school's "strong commitment," Hill said.
By the time of his departure in 2004 after 15 seasons at Utah, former basketball coach Rick Majerus was earning $1 million annually.
Whittingham's base salary is $200,000 with the other $1 million funded by radio and television rights, appearance fees, public speaking, fund-raising and an Under Armour apparel contract, the school said.
"I've said it several times, and I'm not sure anybody believes me: I'm not a money guy," Whittingham said. "I just go to work every day and I'm kind of oblivious to anything else."
After the Sugar Bowl, Whittingham's No. 1 task will be replacing offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who's moving to Kansas State. Utah also needs a defensive line coach to fill the vacancy left by Andersen. Kalani Sitake was promoted as defensive coordinator.
But Whittingham himself now appears settled in for the long haul.
"I'm sure if he wants to finish his career at the University of Utah, now he's going to have the opportunity," Andersen said.