Monson: Bronco and Kyle are a dynamic duo
College football • Utah, BYU coaches have grown into their jobs over past eight seasons.
Published: September 14, 2012 12:22PM
Updated: September 12, 2012 10:27AM
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Gordon Monson

Kyle Whittingham has had a few mentors, people in coaching — LaVell Edwards and Urban Meyer — who have had a significant impact on how he does his business. But he hears only one voice inside his head. It doesn’t make much difference how many games he wins at Utah, how many challenges he faces or overcomes, or how much money he makes. The voice is always there.

He’s won 67 games and lost 26.

Bronco Mendenhall is a different man than the one who took over as BYU’s head coach — after Whittingham turned the job down — before the 2005 season, which is notable for a guy who clings so tightly to one of his core tenets: consistency. Asked how much he’s changed since then, how much he’s learned, his response is: “A lot.”

He’s won 68 games and lost 24.

The two will face off for the eighth time Saturday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium, a run during which Whittingham has won four rivalry games to Mendenhall’s three. They are an intriguing contrast, two coaches who weren’t quite sure who they were when they took command of their programs at virtually the same time, but who have since pretty much figured it out.

Neither would agree with that last claim, though, with too much left undone for either at this juncture. The voice is still there, after all. More change, more learning is required.

Along with his lofty big-picture emphasis on the growth of his players as individuals, Mendenhall, deep down and dirty, would like to do what no BYU coach has ever done: get his team to a major bowl game and, then, win it. But Whittingham, whose team famously won the 2009 Sugar Bowl, has news for the Cougars coach: It won’t be enough.

Even if Mendenhall were to win a national championship, which he has publicly stated as a goal his program doesn’t shy away from or apologize for, it will not matter.

“You continue to put pressure on yourself,” Whittingham said. “You put more pressure on yourself than anyone else does. Every day is a learning experience for me. When I started, everything was new. Now, my philosophy is: keep moving forward, keep getting better. You never find a comfort zone, no matter how many games you win.”

Whittingham revealed one of the sources of the ever-present push: Fred Whittingham.

“Yeah, I hear my dad’s voice in my head,” he says. “He was not an easy man to satisfy.”

And, still, the man must be satisfied.

People around here are familiar with Fred Whittingham. He coached at both BYU and Utah as an assistant and defensive coordinator, and he also spent more than a decade in the NFL, with the Rams and the Raiders. Before getting into coaching, he was a linebacker for the Rams, Eagles, Saints, Cowboys and Patriots.

Somewhere along the line, Fred earned the nickname “Mad Dog.” He was a tough, hardscrabble hombre who, while playing college ball at Cal-Poly, survived a team plane crash on a trip from Bowling Green to California in which 16 died. Utah State coach Gary Andersen, who once tried out with the Rams, tells the story about the time Fred walked into the team weight room while some of the veterans were working out. All of them stopped when Fred entered. That was the essence of the old buzzard’s presence.

And that’s the voice Kyle Whittingham hears. A little namby-pamby win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl doesn’t silence it.

Mendenhall, too, has a paternal model to follow. In the first interview I ever did with him, after he was hired as BYU’s defensive coordinator in 2003, he talked about his father, Paul, who grew up on a ranch in California, where he rose early to sweat through his work. Years later, when Paul Mendenhall, who once had been drafted to play defensive line by the Pittsburgh Steelers, bought 40 acres of horse property in Alpine, he gave his son a similar upbringing. Of it, Bronco said:

“Hard work was just expected. It’s what I did. I wanted to do what I was asked to do. I wanted to do things right. Being rebellious wasn’t a part of me. Disappointing my dad, disappointing myself, would be the worst thing I could do. My dad was intelligent and tough. He was honest and straightforward and hardworking. I saw a consistency in him, every day. I try to emulate him. He’s my idol.”

Bronco feels the same, all these years later.

Both Whittingham and Mendenhall have grown as managers, delegating and holding those around them accountable. They can be intense and aggressive and angry. Each has tempered that as the years have gone by, although this might be a bad week to hit that point too hard for the Utah coach. While giving credit to the Aggies, Whittingham was ticked about the way his team played against Utah State.

Asked on Monday what the Utes needed to improve upon heading into the rivalry game, Whittingham said, “Everything.” He also said there was not one redeeming aspect to the way his team played. The first finger he pointed was straight at himself and his coaches.

Even in moments of defeat, he’s grasped his role as head coach, as a communicator and a leader, how to deal with assistants and players, how to address complex issues. When he hired Brian Johnson as offensive coordinator instead of Aaron Roderick, some staff members were disappointed. To address the situation, at least in part, he added a couple of coaches who were Roderick guys.

Mendenhall has big dreams at BYU, seeing only heavenly limits. He puts a lot of emphasis on trust, with his assistants and his players, and doesn’t easily let outsiders in. He remembers, and often references, being booed in his first game at LES in 2005, when he punted on fourth down in the opponent’s territory. He’s never forgotten that. So, like all coaches, he’s a bit paranoid. He’s never had a particularly warm relationship with fans, especially for a coach who has won as much as he has.

But he wants what they want — to win large, and because of the different way the Cougars do things, enjoy the positive publicity for the school and its owner that would come alongside it.

He treats his players in what could be described as a professional way. Once they are out of the program, he’s more chummy with them, but while they’re still playing for him, it’s mostly business. He does occasionally show a sense of humor.

Bottom line: Whittingham and Mendenhall have grown into strong, successful coaches who snugly fit their programs and their surroundings. Who is the better coach?

Whittingham’s highs have been higher. But, then, according to the voice in his head, that’s far from good enough.

GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 and 960 AM The Zone and 97.5 FM. Twitter: @GordonMonson.