Kragthorpe: Utes’ Whittingham trades staff experience for ‘no egos’
College Football • Ute football coaching staff is the greenest among BCS schools
Published: March 24, 2012 02:20PM
Updated: March 22, 2012 11:39PM
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Tribune file photo Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham has opted for familiar faces steeped in the Ute program over coaching experience in building his staff.

If this works, Kyle Whittingham will have revolutionized the coaching profession.

The University of Utah staff that Whittingham has assembled is unlike any other in college football’s highest tier. None of his nine assistants previously coached in a power conference. Only three have worked for other Football Bowl Subdivision schools. The newly promoted offensive coordinator is three years removed from quarterbacking the Utes. The latest arrival is a personal injury attorney who’s never coached.

Well, Whittingham likes them. “High energy, great chemistry, no egos,” he said Tuesday, as spring practice began.

Whittingham deserves the faith that his 66-25 record inspires. “If he says I’m ready, I’m ready,” said Brian Johnson, the offensive coordinator.

So I’m not saying Whittingham’s provincial method is doomed to fail, just pointing out that it’s radically different than anybody else’s in the Pac-12 or another Bowl Championship Series-qualifying conference. His 2012 hiring trend fits more of a BYU model.

Since winning the Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve, Utah lost offensive coordinator Norm Chow to Hawaii, running backs coach Dave Schramm to Fresno State and offensive line coach Tim Davis to Florida. After the previous season, defensive line coach John Pease retired. Those four accounted for roughly 125 years of experience.

Their replacements have coached full-time for barely more than a dozen seasons, while working for these institutions: the universities of Idaho, Weber State, San Diego State and Utah State and the law firm of Siegfried & Jensen.

With less collective experience than Whittingham’s original Ute staff of 2005, this group resembles something created via fan voting, featuring the charismatic co-captain of the Fiesta Bowl team (Morgan Scalley), the heady QB who beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl (Johnson) and the popular radio sideline reporter (Sharrieff Shah). The six most recently hired staff members either played for Utah or worked there as graduate assistants. “They’ve come up through the system,” Whittingham said. “It’s not a culture shock to them.”

This staff is diverse, well represented by African-American and Polynesian coaches. They have the traits of good recruiters, which is about 90 percent of college football these days. The coaching part probably can be learned, although other Pac-12 staffs have vastly more experience. Colorado, for instance, has four coaches who spent five-plus seasons in the NFL, two former FBS head coaches and two others who worked in BCS conferences.

In contrast, Utah’s recent hires fit the profile of a coach who once came to the school after having worked only at Idaho State during six losing seasons, and he proved to be a reasonably good choice. His name: Kyle Whittingham.

Emboldened by his new contract and $2 million salary, Whittingham is risking his .725 winning percentage for greater rewards with this management approach. Will it work? I’ll just say if he can get the Utes to a Rose Bowl with this staff, he’ll alter college football’s traditional hiring practices.

Shah, now coaching the Ute cornerbacks, is an intriguing case study. He left Siegfried & Jensen in the middle of a medical malpractice lawsuit that he wishes he could have concluded, involving a woman who became paralyzed during knee surgery, allegedly because of an anesthesiology error.

Whittingham’s “core belief is a coach is intelligent, he has high character and he has an unbelievable level of energy,” Shah said. “And I think I probably fit those three categories better than most people who may have more experience. He has a keen eye to find that person.”

Shah’s professional background also provides some perspective to this whole subject. His defensive backs can learn from moments of sobering reality in his experience. “To lose a football game truly sometimes feels like the biggest thing in the world,” Shah said, “but it doesn’t compare to when you’ve lost your little baby to someone who was drinking and driving.”

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

Utah assistant coaches

Coach Pos. Year Prev. schools*

Dan Finn OL 1st Idaho/San Diego State

Jay Hill RB 8th —

Brian Johnson OC 3rd —

Chad Kauha’aha’a DL 2nd Weber State/USU

Aaron Roderick WR 8th Southern Utah

Morgan Scalley DB 5th —

Sharrieff Shah DB 1st —

Kalani Sitake DC 8th Southern Utah

Ilaisa Tuiaki FB/TE 1st Utah State

* In full-time coaching position